The title of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Happy Prince” was not his subtlest use of irony, but as seen in Rupert Everett’s film that bears the same name, it was tragically apt.
Taking place after he was convicted of sodomy and served a two-year sentence of “hard labor, hard fare, and a hard bed,” the film finds Wilde (portrayed with energetic, elegant crapulousness by Everett) wheezing, cadging for cash, and literally singing for his supper (or rounds of absinthe) in a dank and decadent fin-de-siècle Paris evoking the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Bloated and ravaged, a version of the aesthete’s decaying portrait in his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde dies there, in 1900, in a crummy hotel room (not long after remarking, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go”). He was 46.
His past of flamboyant fame and theatrical success exist only in feverish flashbacks, darkened by memories of his trial and conviction and his degradation by those who once applauded him for such comic masterpieces as “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. In one pathetic scene he is delayed between train connections as he is transferred from one prison to another. Handcuffed in a convict’s uniform, he is recognized and a crowd gathers. Taunting and spitting, their faces resemble the grotesques in Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.” This motif of martyrdom continues throughout the film; in one instance, a match cut is made between Wilde in extremis and a battered crucifix.
If there is a Judas in the story, it would be Wilde’s callow lover and the cause of his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. “Bosie” (Colin Morgan). But their reunion in a train station, where Wilde breaks down sobbing and Bosie offers tender comfort, reveals a love that, as Wilde insisted, is as much spiritual as carnal. Despite the prohibition of Wilde’s aptly named, long-suffering wife, Constance (Emily Watson), the two would then set off for a debauched, desperate idyll in Naples under the fiery cone of Mt. Vesuvius.
As with poor Constance and his two young sons, Wilde drags other victims into the wake of his self-destruction. Robert Ross (Edwin Thomas), who was probably Wilde’s first gay lover and would become his literary executor, remains loyal until the end, even though he was neither equally loved in return nor much respected.
Everett draws effectively from Wilde’s own writings and witticisms. The latter occur as rueful asides — as when Wilde paraphrases a famous bon mot, sighing that Bosie knows neither the price nor the value of anything. He tells the title fairy tale about a gilt statue of a prince who sacrifices his gold and jewels for the poor — first in flashback to his two boys and then to a Parisian urchin whom he befriends. And throughout the film he intones in voice-over from his last work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” repeating its refrain, “each man kills the thing he loves.” Perhaps in Wilde’s case, the thing most loved was himself.
THE HAPPY PRINCE
Written and directed by Rupert Everett. Starring Everett , Colin Firth , Colin Morgan , Edwin Thomas , Emily Watson. At Kendall Square . 104 min. R (sexual content, graphic nudity, language, and brief drug use).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.