With Oscar Wilde, many are less familiar with the body of work he left behind than they are with his tragic personal history. “The Happy Prince,” a new film about Wilde’s final days, is not likely to change that.
Wilde, who like countless men of his time was closeted and married to a woman, was having a love affair with the young Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, whose father was the Marquess of Queensbury. When the Marquess publicly called out Wilde as a “sodomite,” Wilde attempted to sue him for libel, which backfired when the Marquess produced proof in court of Wilde’s same-sex liaisons. Because homosexuality was illegal at the time, the author was then tried and convicted for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years in prison. Upon his release, with his health shattered and his reputation destroyed, he fled to France, where he briefly lived in poverty before dying at 46.
“The Happy Prince,” written and directed by out actor Rupert Everett, who also stars as Wilde, takes its title from a short story included by the author in a book of children’s fables. In the film, this bittersweet tale is spun by the author, in installments, to a pair of young companions. But apart from those segments and a few pertinent lines from his final work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the film draws very little from Wilde’s writings.
Instead, it takes a speculative journey into the mind of the great author as he lives out his last years — grappling with his conscience, re-examining his relationships, remembering his past and coping with his declining health, all while maintaining his characteristic bemused detachment and indulging in as much decadence as he can beg, borrow or manipulate his way into.
It’s a highly effective approach to a subject that is bigger than a two-hour movie can accommodate with integrity. Unlike most biopics, “The Happy Prince” eschews the usual formula of trying to cover an entire famous life in favor of focusing on a short, key period; by so doing, it avoids the usual pitfalls of contrivance and cliché that often give such films an inauthentic feel, allowing Wilde’s essence to be distilled into a sort of snapshot – illuminating his humanity, rather than his importance.
Everett fares well in his debut as a writer and director. His film — a passion project 10 years in the making — maintains the aesthetic of a period piece without becoming stodgy, and his ever-fluid camera allows for imaginative flights of fancy that transport us in and out of Wilde’s memories and fantasies without confusing us. His screenplay sharply weaves the ongoing themes of Wilde’s life and work – the embrace of hedonism, the prodigious classical knowledge, the egalitarian humanism that contrasted his savagely sly observations of society – into an intimate character piece that examines the great man as he confronts his conflicted nature in the face of his own mortality.