The Happy Prince

Rupert Everett writes, directs and stars in the role of his life as Oscar Wilde at the end of his life. And he makes a stunning job of it, inhabiting the playwright in exile in Paris and Naples, embodying his pain and his ecstasy.

Released from Reading gaol, Wilde fled to France and assumed the name of Sebastien Melmoth to hide out first in Dieppe, then Naples, fleeing the ridicule and ruin heaped on him in England by the notorious accusations of being a “sodomite”.

In Everett’s hands, we feel the pain and the shame, the torture and the desperation of a genius wit surviving on instinct and the kindness of strangers. We feel the pinch of penury, the stabs of addiction and pangs of love for his wife Constance (Emily Watson) and two sons while we also understand the self-destructive passion for the feckless aristo Bosie (Colin Morgan, turning on the arrogance).

Everett tells the story in scenes and flashbacks, thumbnails and moments, many in dimly lit rooms. He’s entertaining the crowds in a rowdy bar with “The boy I love”, then keeling over and waking up in the slums of Clignancourt, befriending urchin boys who offer him sex and whom he pays in drink and cocaine. it’s dingy and dirty and opiated and there’s much to admire in the performance: Rupert dazzles in both French and English, his jaw protruding, his hands embellishing, his eyes dancing until the soul dribbles away. Here’s a man ripe with poetry and thick with wit but mainly it’s masking the agony.

This is a depressed, broken Wilde, an addict and a victim, a man in a spiral and a cape, who can’t accept love or friendship but will take a fiver or a hit of absinthe from anyone. The peripatetic structure keeps us on our toes and prevents it from being a wallow, which is why the film works well. The flashbacks to prison are chilling as is the (fictitious?) scene of him in chains on Clapham Junction station surrounded by commuters baying their contempt and disgust. 

Wilde’s is a gradual yet sad decline and Everett plays it like a big balloon with a slow puncture, the deflation of a series of defeats, punctuated by moments of fleeting glory, glimpses of talent. Occasionally, we return to scenes of him in happier times, reading the titular short tale with all its poetic, fanciful embroidery, as a bedtime story for his two sons. Yes it’s a film in the gutter, but it’s looking at the stars.