Rupert Everett’s passion project and feature debut behind the camera is a sad and moving study of Oscar Wilde’s tragic final days, handled with a lot of love and more than a little wit.
Actors adore playing the late Wilde, but while we’ve seen Robert Morley, Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry and others excel in the role, they always show Oscar as the toast of London and then battling the Establishment during his trials, and almost never properly depict him as a broken, destitute and gravely ill ruin in the years after his release from jail.
Everett puts this to rights though, and he’s perfect as a briefly-glimpsed Oscar wowing a crowd after a performance of what must have been The Importance Of Being Earnest, a panicked figure in the courtroom, a terrified prisoner and, finally, a desperately sick but still brilliant man knowing full well that the curtain is soon to come down.
Opening with the pre-scandal Oscar telling his young sons the story of The Happy Prince (which became a favourite selection in his book of fairy tales), we then cut to him in exile in Paris, wearing a floppy hat to cover his face and distressing a onetime fan (Anna Chancellor as Mrs. Arbuthnott). Living in a sleazy apartment and spending time with drunks, rentboys and street kids, we watch him sipping absinthe, starting fights and looking like he’s gone to seed – and way beyond.
There are scary, jarring cuts to his two years in Pentonville Prison, but these are, rather surprisingly, slightly less painful than the interludes where the non-chronological script allows us to see him in the early days after his release, when he was a wreck but still hopeful that he could somehow reunite with his cruel former lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan), reconcile with his also-ailing wife Constance (Emily Watson) and see his children once again.
Everett’s on-off friend and frequent co-star Colin Firth turns up as Oscar’s faithful chum Reggie Turner (the pair of them also starred in 2002’s charming filming of Earnest), Béatrice ‘Betty Blue’ Dalle cameos as a café manager and Tom Wilkinson appears late on as Father Dunne, as if trying to make up for his memorably horrible turn as no less than The Marquess Of Queensbury himself alongside Stephen Fry in 1997’s Wilde. But really this is all about Everett, who tried to get the film made for many years and, it must be said, considers himself something of an Oscar Wilde-type figure offscreen.
And yes, he is almost that witty – but not quite. No one is.
The Happy Prince (MA) is in cinemas now