I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Actor Rupert Everett’s labor of cinematic love — he makes his debut here as writer and director, and is his own leading man — is a small wonder of contradictions: nightmarish yet sanguine, a bit sordid yet full of grace. Already a literary legend in his own time, Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde is forced, in the late 1890s, to leave London in ignominy when he is released from two years’ hard labor in prison after a conviction of “gross indecency” (ie, homosexual behavior). Exiled in France, and then Italy, a broke and broken man living under a pseudonym (though everyone knows who he is, which sometimes brings violent homophobic abuse down upon him), he struggles to cling to his wit, his outsized personality, and his own fierce sense of self, purely as a matter of survival of body and soul.
Be not mistaken: Wilde himself is not The Happy Prince; the title is bitter and ironic, borrowed from a children’s story Wilde wrote that, in flashbacks to untroubled times, he tells as a bedtime tale to his young sons, and now to a young Parisian street urchin who has become a stand-in for his children. Although, in fact… the story is about how suffering for the sins of others will see you rewarded in the next life, so Wilde, who was fascinated by Catholic theology, may have seen himself in that. And we certainly may, too.
Everett (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) portrays Wilde’s optimism, in what would be his last years — he died at only 46 — as inescapable yet tragic: “I must love and be loved whatever price I pay for for it,” he sighs, and a price will be paid. A desire to reconcile with his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson: Kingsman: The Golden Circle), fails. A reigniting of his romance with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan: The Huntsman: Winter’s War) is a bit of a disaster; Morgan plays Bosie like an insufferable, spoiled little shit, which renders Oscar’s affection for him quite mysterious, which I’m sure is intended to add to the tragedy of the writer’s desperation for affection. This is often a difficult film to behold: it depicts a litany of human misery and cruelty both petty and prodigious, and it’s only just barely tempered by kindness, love, and humor, on Oscar’s part as well as those of his true friends, literary agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and old pal Reggie Turner (Colin Firth: The Mercy). We are watching the sparkle go out on one of the great wits of the English language and one of the wisest observers of humanity, and it’s wretchedly heartbreaking.