The Happy Prince opens on Oscar Wilde in his element. He’s on stage, a bit drunk, as much on the attention as the spirits and rather red from both. He’s a bit past his prime, but at his most magnetic this way. Jubilant, in song and flirting with the whole room. But he’s perhaps a bit too bold in his suggestions, or his actions elsewhere, because next moment he’s ripped from the life of luxury and sophistication, charged with gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor. Imagine the soft hands of a writer plunged into the rude awakening of late 1800s prison labor and top that pain with some very public shaming and you begin to get the measure of what his happiness cost him. You know, apart from his wife, children and career.
We rejoin him two years later, free, but haunted in exile. Friends and sometime lovers rally to his cause at turns, and we watch their revelries, Oscar’s attempts to forget, but mostly, his musings on his failings in life and love. Yes, The Happy Prince is that kind of picture. The tale of a man who lived with joy once and paid for it forever. A man who had a gift, but who seemed doomed never to find peace from that gift. Rupert Everett, who also wrote and directed, loses himself entirely in the role of Oscar Wilde. His handsome features relaxed into the face of the tragicomic scribe who winds out his last days before our eyes. It’s the kind of performance that lifts a film, making the history feel alive rather than merely recreated.
Everett peopled the rest of his picture with no shortage of talent, but no one here really registers beyond the broad strokes of Oscar Wilde. Of course, Colin Firth’s epic mustache does leave a lasting impression, but for all his talent, we get little of the man behind it, just the knowledge that he’s Oscar’s friend. If The Happy Prince has a weakness it’s that there’s little here to propel us from scene-to-scene. Rather, we’re just expected to follow along the whims and musings of the aging writer — through bacchanals and incredible loneliness alike. And that makes for a challenging sit. The human details are interesting, but alone do not quite command the rapt attention of the casual viewer. Still, history buffs and English majors should thrill at the frank depiction of the final days of an iconic mind.