Film review: The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett's passion project about Oscar Wilde

Telling the tale of Oscar Wilde's life and death following his release from prison, The Happy Prince is a labour of love for writer, actor and director Rupert Everett in which he gives a compelling performance, writes Damon Smith

Armagh actor Colin Morgan with Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince
Damon Smith

TAKING its title from a short story for children by Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince is an elegiac account of the final years of the Irish playwright and poet following his incarceration for gross indecency.

The film is a passion project for director, writer and lead actor Rupert Everett, who slipped effortlessly into Wilde's skin in 2012 in a revival of David Hare's play The Judas Kiss at Hampstead Theatre in London, which transferred to the West End and New York.

Everett's deep emotional connection to his subject is evident in a compelling, nuanced performance that doesn't shy away from the self-destructive impulses that led Wilde to his grave during a tumultuous exile in France at the turn of the 20th century.

His fall from grace is agonisingly slow and painful, and the script takes its time to explore the various personal relationships that sustained Wilde in his twilight years and also tore him apart.

He neglects some of his closest allies, who stand by him despite his shameful conduct, and the playwright continues to fraternise with the manipulative object of his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie.

We meet Wilde (Everett) after his release from Reading Gaol, on the brink of financial ruin. His ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) grants him a small allowance on the understanding that he will sever all ties to Bosie (Colin Morgan), but Wilde cannot resist his self-serving paramour and his income is thus withheld.

Good friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) try in vain to keep their pal out of the gutter, staring up at twinkling stars, but passions outwit Wilde's common sense and he sinks into a mire of misery.

Racked with illness, the playwright seeks refuge with two resourceful street waifs – brothers, who exist on their wits and, in the case of the older boy, by selling his body.

In return, Wilde enchants and enthrals his young hosts with passages from The Happy Prince, transporting them far from the squalor and degradation with beautifully crafted words.

Yet death lurks in the corner of every dank room and as an inglorious end beckons, the few who truly love Wilde gather at his bedside as Fr Dunne (Tom Wilkinson) delivers the last rites.

The Happy Prince wades artfully through the despair of Wilde's exile, interspersed with pungent flashbacks including his transfer to Reading Gaol by train when jeering passengers spat in his face.

Everett's anguished face haunts almost every frame, but there are strong supporting performances from Thomas and Morgan as competing forces for Wilde's affections.

The script is peppered with bon mots that hint at the dying genius of a man, whose great sin was to be afflicted by "the love that dare not speak its name".

It took almost 120 years for Wilde to be granted a posthumous pardon. Therein lies true shame.

THE HAPPY PRINCE (15, 105 mins) Drama/Romance. Rupert Everett, Colin Morgan, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Edwin Thomas, Tom Wilkinson. Director: Rupert Everett

RATING: 7/10

Released: June 15 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

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