Those who associate Oscar Wilde with the precise wit of The Importance of Being Earnest or his many circulated quotations are in for a shock with The Happy Prince. Set primarily between 1897, when Wilde was released from hard imprisonment for gross indecency, and 1900, when he succumbed to meningitis, Rupert Everett’s biopic is concerned almost entirely with the author’s suffering. Estranged from his wife, Constance (Emily Watson), and their children, a heavy Wilde (Everett) stumbles drunkenly through the streets of various European cities, paying for the attentions of young men. Everett punctuates these interludes with shock cuts to Wilde’s life in prison and to the acclaim the author once enjoyed as the toast of British society. Everett is less interested in offering a straightforward biography than a phantasmagoria that expresses Wilde’s bitter, deteriorating psyche.
With the aid of prosthetics, Everett conveys the wearying exhaustion of insatiable addiction. Everett doesn’t glamorize drinking as a rebellion against square society, and there’s an especially vivid scene where Wilde’s former literary executor and lover, Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), offers to pay Wilde’s bar tab only to be shocked as to the amount. In this sequence, Everett doesn’t play overt drunkenness, riffing instead on the attempt a self-conscious intellectual makes to launder profound intoxication through a patina of elegance, lacing witticisms with a deepening undertow of incoherent slurs.
In The Happy Prince, Wilde’s sex life has become a similar No Exit-like situation. As he gorges himself on young men with his self-absorbed lover, Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan), whose influential family got Wilde thrown in prison to begin with, Wilde is shown by Everett to be a man of astonishing appetites, as well as an artist who’s still imprisoned. The more Wilde indulges the less he feels, and Everett shows us glimpses of the prodigious talent that’s striving to penetrate the vice to achieve expression, particularly in a lovely moment where Wilde drunkenly sings a song to evade a bar fight.
But Everett’s performance as director is less certain here. This sort of free-associative narrative has thwarted many artists of vaster experience, because there’s a thin line between freedom and tedium, between forging new aesthetic forms and fostering a narrative of mere shapelessness. For every haunting sequence in The Happy Prince, there’s five that redundantly wallow in Wilde’s misery, which is Everett’s point, but it becomes wearisome. Supporting characters come and go, though only Ross and Douglas make much of an impression, while Constance is relegated to the role of suffering wife. With the exception of a heartbreakingly beautiful moment on a French beach, an homage to Renoir’s paintings, Everett largely fails to cinematically distinguish the film’s various settings and confrontations, the latter of which rely too often on close-ups of people in murky shadows.
That murkiness extends to the screenplay, which is so muddled that one has to rely on personal knowledge of Wilde’s eponymous children’s story to understand the film’s central metaphor. In The Happy Prince, Wilde tells this story off and on over the course of the entire running time, drawing it out so long it loses any sense of momentum. One is meant to grasp how the story anticipated Wilde’s own decline and self-pity, even as he hoped for transcendence in the afterlife—a transcendence that he probably defined as acceptance, the sort of cleansing of the soulful slate that drew him briefly to Catholicism. But Everett doesn’t need all this thematic handwringing, as his performance evinces an acute understanding of Wilde’s desire to martyr himself so as to sleep better with his demons. Which is to say that The Happy Prince finds an amazing actor in need of a shrewder filmmaker.