Legendary Irish writer and playwright Oscar Wilde has been the focus of many films and TV movies, perhaps most notably 1997’s well-regarded feature “Wilde” with Stephen Fry. But Wilde’s current incarnation in “The Happy Prince,” written and directed by and starring the fine British actor Rupert Everett, tells the gay scribe’s tragic, slyly poetic story in a dreamy, inventive and beautifully crafted way that decidedly sets it apart.
Named for Wilde’s short story “The Happy Prince,” a children’s tale whose allegorical prose is deftly woven throughout here, the film finds a penniless, fading Wilde in 1900 Paris flashing back mainly on his last few years in exile after being notoriously imprisoned in 1895 for then-illegal homosexual acts or “gross indecency.” These non-linear reveries, made up of skillfully shot (by John Conroy) and designed (by Brian Morris) memories, vignettes and hallucinations, paint a colorful, candid portrait of a man torn between his unabashed outré-ness and the societal norms he has tried in vain to abide.
Wilde, uninspired or simply incapable of writing the novels (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”) and plays (“Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “The Importance of Being Earnest” and others) that brought him renown in the earlier 1890s, must now live off the monetary kindness — or duty — of others including his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson), with whom he had two sons. Wilde still harbors illusions of reuniting with Constance but realities of several kinds get in the way of that.
Still, it’s the erratic love triangle between Wilde, his literary executor, the devoted Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), and the flightier Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan) that forms the nominal spine of this kaleidoscopic portrait and offers a vivid view of the risky, covert, yet enticing state of gay male relationships at the time. Wilde’s pariah status after his infamous arrest is also on disturbing display.
Everett’s portrayal of the grand and wily Wilde proves a hand-in-glove fit for the gay actor who, although working regularly these past years in international film and TV productions (“Parade’s End,” “The Musketeers,” “In the Name of the Rose”), has been largely absent from the kind of mainstream studio fare (voiceover work aside) that might have otherwise followed his devilishly engaging turn in 1997’s hit rom-com “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” (He has said that coming out may have squashed his potential leading man career, with 2000’s much maligned “The Next Best Thing,” opposite Madonna, proving a major nail in his Hollywood coffin.)
Everett has a long history with Wilde, appearing on stage in “Earnest” and in feature versions of both “Earnest” and the playwright’s “An Ideal Husband.” More recently, the actor portrayed Wilde in a revival tour of David Hare’s play “The Judas Kiss.”
But “The Happy Prince,” which took a reported 10 years to get in front of the cameras, is Everett’s passion project — and it shows. It’s a film of decided care and forethought.
Anyone who may still think of Everett as Julia Roberts’ dashingly wry boss-buddy George in “Wedding” may find the actor unrecognizable here under serious makeup and prosthetics as the dying, dissolute Wilde. Nonetheless, he channels Wilde’s literary bearing, clever wit and absinthe-tinged wooziness with poignancy and pathos. Such Wildean bon-mots as “I’m in mortal combat with this wallpaper” or “I’m dying beyond my means,” receive special delivery from Everett.
Although Watson pops up too infrequently as the long-suffering Mrs. Wilde, as does Colin Firth (Everett’s cast mate in films such as “Another Country” and “Earnest”), who plays Wilde’s close friend and novelist Reggie Turner, they are welcome additions. Same goes for Tom Wilkinson, an 11th-hour arrival as a last rites-administering priest.
A lush, strings-heavy score by Oscar winner Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”) and first-rate costume design by Giovanni Casalnuovo and Maurizio Millenotti are additional highlights.
‘The Happy Prince’
In English, French and Italian with English subtitles
Rated: R, for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes