Reunited in Rouen after a pained separation, Oscar Wilde and his young lover Alfred “Bosie” Douglas adjourn to the privacy of a small, dim, chintzily decorated hotel room. Clothes come off, the lights go out… and just like that, “The Happy Prince” hits us with a cutaway to a train going through a tunnel. Cribbed shamelessly from Hitchcock, it’s the kind of lightly saucy visual gag you might expect in a film directed by waggish thesp Rupert Everett, but its daintiness strikes a false note in a biopic otherwise dedicated to the honest passions and anguish of a man best known for his archness. It’s neither the first nor the last well-meaning misstep in Everett’s ornate writing-directing debut, which chronicles Wilde’s destitute final years in France as a tangle of memory streams, boozy vignettes and flashbacks within flashbacks, but sometimes loses sight of the man behind the aesthete.
A big-screen vehicle for Everett as Wilde has, of course, been a long time coming. The out-and-proud Brit established his affinity for Wilde’s limber, witty language in Oliver Parker’s springy screen adaptations of “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” before getting more seriously into the skin of the Irish literary giant for David Hare’s biographical play “The Judas Kiss” — a work with which “The Happy Prince” partially overlaps in its focus on the toxic disintegration of Wilde’s and Bosie’s affair.
So it comes as no surprise that the actor, his aquiline features smudged and blunted under makeup and prosthetics, makes a fine Wilde — brittler than Stephen Fry’s interpretation from 1998, but persuasively so. At points, Everett rather touchingly essays the protective irony that endures in a spirit otherwise crumpled by heartbreak, imprisonment and public shaming; he moves with the shambling body language of a larger-than-life man now doing his level best not to be seen.
As a final, permanent showcase for a role Everett was born to play, then, “The Happy Prince” does the job. For all its passion-project hallmarks, however, it makes a shakier case for him being the filmmaker to bring it to screen. Everett’s original screenplay shoots for an ambitiously unruly hall-of-mirrors structure, flitting non-chronologically around Wilde’s final years as recollections and hallucinations come to him on his deathbed in a Parisian fleapit. Yet the writing is more literal than literary, awash with such woolly sentiments as, “Suffering is nothing when there is love… love is everything,” while the breeze-blown timeline, under Everett’s heavy, decorous direction, turns a bit stuffy.
For any viewers unfamiliar with the facts, introductory title cards explain the essential circumstances of Wilde’s social ruin, following his 1895 conviction for “gross indecency with men.” We flash immediately back to gentler times in the Wilde household, as he puts his sons to bed with a reading of his own eponymous children’s story; the beloved tale of a gilded statue who comes to know the gravity of human suffering, it’s recurringly referenced in Everett’s script, seemingly as a metaphor for Wilde’s own depleted, once-golden existence. The fable is repeated, more wistfully, to Jean (Benjamin Voisin) and Leon (Matteo Salamone), the Parisian street urchins whom Wilde takes under his withered wing in his last days, his storytelling powers outclassing his bodily strength.
Skipping back and forth across his exile period, “The Happy Prince” winds up principally sketching a rough love triangle between Wilde, the teasing, manipulative Bosie (a pristine, suitably petulant Colin Morgan) and Wilde’s more tenderly devoted literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), which alternately intensifies and dissipates across years and European borders. (A German-Belgian-Italian co-production, the film duly puts its multinational production credits up on screen.)
Ross’s weary, take-and-take relationship with his client, friend and sometime lover gives the film its most quietly moving thread, buoyed by Thomas’s stoic, softly sorrowful performance. Would that Emily Watson, largely wasted in her few brief scenes as Wilde’s estranged, embittered wife Constance, were given as many notes to play; a typically reserved Colin Firth, also taking an executive producer credit, adds little but marquee value in an extended cameo as Wilde’s loyal friend and peer Reggie Turner.
“The Happy Prince” gains some heated, enlivening pique when it touches on the subject of Wilde’s continued homophobic bullying by onlookers and the system alike, played in terms that still strike an anxious chord in 2018. Elsewhere, there’s not much urgency to its melancholic ramble through the writer’s ailing consciousness. Cinematographer John Conroy favors chiefly autumnal, varnish-darkened shades, which join Gabriel Yared’s stately score in lending proceedings an elegiac tone from the outset: fair early warning for audiences that Oscar Wilde the blithe humorist will be making sporadic appearances, at best, in a biopic that places great importance on being earnest. “Why should a perfectly divine leopard change his spots?” Wilde asks, though Everett’s film, at once indulgent and somewhat undernourished, captures its subject some way past his era of divinity.