Chronicling the tragic last years in the life of Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, the melancholy biopic "The Happy Prince" was a passion project for actor Rupert Everett, who spent nearly a decade trying to get the film made. In addition to writing and directing duties, Everett stars as the writer himself.
The film picks up in 1897, shortly after Wilde is released from prison, having served two years hard labor for "gross indecency" (read: homosexuality). He's freed, only to find himself ostracized and abandoned by those who once flocked to him. A pariah in all respectable circles, Wilde flees London to live out the final years of his life in exile in France. The narrative tracks his self-destructive downfall, ping-ponging around the country under the assumed name of Sebastian Melmoth, indulging in drink and paying rent boys for companionship.
Along the way, he spends some time with his lover Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas (Colin Morgan), the cruel young rake whose love cost the writer nearly everything. He's joined by his sole remaining faithful friends, Reggie Turner (a spectacularly mustachioed Colin Firth) and literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), who attempt to care for the writer even when he's unwilling to act in his own best interests. And Robbie's selfless devotion to Wilde lends the film some of its most touching moments. There are also a few all-too-brief moments with Emily Watson as Wilde's long-suffering wife Constance.
The film's title comes from one of Wilde's short stories written for children, a bittersweet tale the writer would tell to his two young sons before bedtime, and which becomes the narrative framing device.
The film's scattered chronology does undercut some of the emotion Everett seeks to build up, but his performance provides a strong center to the story. Assuming his audience has some familiarity with the highlights of the author's career, Everett's script leaves Wilde's career triumphs off-screen, aside from a few quick flashbacks. What's left is mostly sadness and humiliation, and the film contains a real sense anger at Wilde's treatment at the end of his life.
"The Happy Prince" can be indulgent in the way of first-time filmmakers, but gains a poignancy in its depiction of a gay life cut down by the whims of "polite society," leading the life of a brilliant comedic wit to end as tragedy.