A mopey yet gorgeous-looking wallow in the final years of the literary giant Oscar Wilde, “The Happy Prince” staggers around Europe with one eye on the grave and the other on the kinds of sorry mischief an unrepentant hedonist like Wilde could get up to.
Happiness, however, proves elusive. Opening in 1897 as Wilde is sprung from a British prison after serving two years for gross indecency, the movie watches him wander, exiled and frequently penniless, through Dieppe and Naples before expiring in Paris of meningitis three years later. Brief flashbacks to the humiliations of his trial and the balm of opening-night adulation — represented by a sea of ecstatically applauding Victorian toffs — interrupt these peregrinations and underline the tragedy of his fall.
As played (and written, and directed) by Rupert Everett, Wilde is less a sparkling wit than a sad, overweight sot, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the pity of old friends — and as much absinthe and cocaine as he can get his hands on. The locations change, but the desire for drugs and handsome young companions is constant, his knack for finding enablers well-honed. Surviving mainly on a small allowance from his estranged and sickly wife (a briefly seen Emily Watson), and the kindness of old friends like Robbie Ross (a fine Edwin Thomas), Wilde is partying more to numb the senses than excite them.
Suffused with a sentimentality that Wilde himself would have deplored, “The Happy Prince” is narratively mushy and meandering. Yet, beneath the prosthetics, there’s genuine pathos in Mr. Everett’s portrayal of a man bitterly aware that his talents are unreliable armor against the perceived sin of his homosexuality. And when he sings a music-hall song to defuse a cafe riot, we see someone who has long used words to deflect violence and charm protectors.
Scenes like this have a stand-alone power, infusing Wilde’s witticisms and clowning with tragic import and repositioning them as a bulwark against the hypocrisies of the age and the indignities of decline. An ill-advised reunion with Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan), the selfish lover who caused his downfall, prompts Wilde to describe himself as “an old sheep with his butcher.” Like the sacrificial fairy-tale hero of the title, he’s a martyr to his self-destructive impulses, but Mr. Everett gives him a grandeur that prohibits pity. It’s a performance that far outshines his writing and direction, leaving the cinematographer John Conroy to pick up the slack with coppery, burnished images edged frequently in ominous shadow. In “The Happy Prince,” death is never far away, no matter how numerous Wilde’s “purple moments” in the sheets or drunken ditties in the cafe.
The Happy Prince
Rated R for naked men and pleasurable substances. In English, Italian and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.