Most people know Oscar Wilde as the preeminent source of British wit, a high-society raconteur whose plays and novels epitomize what it means to be the life of the party. That characterization recedes to the shadows in “The Happy Prince,” in which Rupert Everett directs and stars as the flamboyant literary giant at the end of his life. Anyone expecting Wildean banter will be sorely disappointed — think more of an autobiographical spin on “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” than “The Importance of Being Earnest” — but it’s Everett’s formidable investment in the role that rescues the movie from being a total letdown. Nevertheless, “The Happy Prince” largely amounts to a bland rumination on Wilde’s lesser-known decline.
The drama mostly takes place in 1867, shortly after Wilde was released from prison for “indecency with men.” Exiled to France, he roams about town with Falstaffian prowess, even as he’s clearly a sad shell of his former self. Everett, who played a variation of this character onstage more than once with “Judas Kiss,” transforms Wilde into an absinthe-guzzling mess who wanders through back alleys and claustrophobic cabarets. At one establishment, he holds court with a rapt audience while singing an old show tune, then face-plants in a drunken heap, yielding an injury that leaves him bedridden. So far, so intriguing — but “The Happy Prince” settles into a glacial character study more content to linger in its pity party than provide deeper insights.
From there, the timeline shifts, exploring the immediate aftermath of Wilde’s release from prison with occasional flashbacks to happier times. Back in England, his estranged wife Constance (Emily Watson, her face frozen in disapproval) continues to support Wilde from afar. In lieu of her company, he’s joined by longtime lover Lord Alfred Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan, in a heartfelt turn), literary agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), and longtime pal Reggie Turner (Colin Firth, wearing an awkward mustache). This trio forms a cogent support system as Wilde repeatedly moans about his lost opportunities, writer’s block, and the occasional spiritual insight. (“I am my own Judas,” he says, contemplating the discovery of faith during his jail time.) Set across beaches and lonely cafés, the movie foregrounds Wilde’s insights about his faded stardom and disdain for the culture that exiled him. “The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England,” he sighs, recalling a world that embraced his exuberance before rejecting it for good.
There’s plenty to appreciate in Wilde’s struggle, thanks in large part to Everett’s investment in the role, but he falls short of giving the surrounding movie the same elevated intensity. Unfolding in the format of a melodrama, “The Happy Prince” suffers from murky lighting schemes and peculiar transitions, suggesting that Everett’s first time as a director found him uncertain how to apply his theatrical instincts to a different medium. The result is more “Masterpiece Theater” than movie.
Beyond that, “The Happy Prince” takes Wilde’s stature for granted, and makes hardly any reference to his best-known works. Instead, they hover around him with a phantom-like air, requiring audiences to do the extra legwork. Onstage, it’s easy to see how the melancholy air might resonate without additional context. Here, the movie falls into a grating pattern of men chatting in somber tones about old times. Diehard Wilde fans will find some intriguing observations lurking in this snapshot of the writer’s final moments — his capacity as orator, wonderfully realized by Everett, explains much about his prose — but redundancy sets in.
Of course, that’s the whole point: “The Happy Prince” is about a man trapped in limbo between the world behind him and new possibilities he can never realize. “We are lost in our own world,” he says, an astute observation for this pioneering figure of gay culture who was forced to hover on the outskirts of Victorian ideals. He’s a strikingly tragic creature, but “The Happy Prince” struggles to say much more about that conundrum, leaving one to contemplate the potential had Wilde emerged from retirement to fill in the blanks.
“The Happy Prince” premiered in the Premieres section at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.