All actors, the old joke goes, want to play Jesus. It’s a Messiah complex that comes with the vocation.
Gay actors, the out ones anyway, want to play Oscar Wilde.
The greatest wit of his age, perhaps of any age, a brilliant playwright — “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “An Ideal Husband” — and homosexual martyr from an era when Britain jailed such men for “gross indecency,” Wilde was a worthy subject for the wonderful Stephen Frye 20 years ago (“Wilde”) and a grand challenge for Rupert Everett, who wrote, directed and stars in “The Happy Prince.”
It’s a witty, sad film focusing on Wilde’s final years, after he “scandalized” London, sued the Marquess of Queensberr ( who outed him for his affair with Bosie Douglas, the louche son of the Marquess) and had that suit turn into a criminal trial and two years of hard labor for his sins.
Self-exiled to the continent — France mainly — this is Wilde at twilight, the man peddling “De Profundis,” his melancholy “Letter from Reading Gaol.”
A profligate wag out of cash, he is begging from old friends and longtime fans, one of whom (Anna Chancellor) spies him, tipsy and downcast on the streets of Paris.
“How kind of you to speak to me,” he says, humbled and hoarse, before asking for a fiver. “I am wedded to poverty,” he declares to an old friend, “and the marriage has not been a success.”
Everett’s Wilde has decided “There is no mystery as great as suffering,” that he himself is “a broken man…too cold to finish his play.” He drifts through his last days, renewing his practice of impromptu storytelling to children — once his own sons, now the street urchins of Paris. He tells them of The Happy Prince and the King of the Mountains of the Moon, “black as heaven,” and their rivalry and struggles.
Everett makes this Wilde a magnificent ruin, reveling in self-pity rather than wallowing in it. Spat upon in his home country, hounded by boorish British gay bashers on a holiday in Dieppe, Wilde takes one last lunge at love, begging forgiveness from his sickly, indulgent but humiliated wife (Emily Watson, soft and brittle), taking the attentions of his devoted former lover Robbie (Edwin Thomas) for granted, desperate for a reconciliation with the wastrel Bosie (Colin Morgan) who loved him, but also used and ruined him.
“I cannot live without the atmosphere of love. I must love and be loved!”
Everett gives these doomed years a wistful melancholy interrupted by moments where Wilde reminded everyone within earshot how he could still be the life of the party — affecting a girlish voice for flirtatious jokes, forever picking up the check, serenading rowdy French barflies with “The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery” and remembering in flashbacks his many theatrical triumphs, addressing the audience with ready wit after every hit.
“Your appreciation has been MOST intelligent. I congratulate you on the success of YOUR performance…You think almost as highly of the play as I do myself!”
Everett brings genuine warmth as writer, director and star to Wilde’s moments with children — indulgent (to a fault) — and crushed resignation to his fate. He “dined on shame” in prison, where “in the cell, there is only God and man.” We see the humiliation of his head-shaving and dunking upon admission to jail and his cowed misery at enduring how the hoi polloi turned on him.
But his wit, famously, never left him — paying off a rent boy with “Our purple hours are sullied by green notes,” commenting on decor, even on his death bed.
“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
Colin Firth added his Oscar-winning name and prestige to “The Happy Prince,” helping Everett get it made (Watson and Tom Wilkinson, as a priest, give marquee value as well). Firth effortlessly plays Wilde’s loyal confidante, the novelist and gay wit Reggie Turner, here seen as one of Wilde’s go-to actors in his heyday.
Everett didn’t attempt a “complete” life of Oscar, focusing so narrowly on the end. But the once rakish star, novelist and chat show mainstay creates a performance with a post-vanity vanity about it, a man who remembers what youth and beauty and fame once gave him and yet cannot give himself wholly over to mourning what only he knows he’s lost.
He has given us a portrait of Wilde that revives his memory and his martyrdom, but that allows the endlessly quotable genius to be not the great man and icon, but just a man — a funny, charming one whose indulgences and foibles bring him to life.
And for that he deserves thanks in words Everett gives to Wilde as he responds to a small kindness.
“Thank you…for a moment’s harmony in a discordant fugue.”
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use
Cast: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Tom Wilkinson
Credits: Written and directed by Rupert Everett. A Sony Classics/BBC Films release.
Running time: 1:45