It took openly gay actor Rupert Everett over a decade to get The Happy Prince made.
Without interest from major studios and directors, Everett went to great lengths to paint a different picture of Queer playwright, Oscar Wilde. The film marks his directorial debut with an excellent screenplay that he wrote himself. Swallowed in makeup and aging prosthetics, Everett delivers the performance of a lifetime as the unpredictably witty Wilde.
Unlike most biopics, The Happy Prince spends little time diving into the protagonist’s backstory. Despite the rich array of literary successes to pull from and Oscar Wilde’s eventual imprisonment for “gross indecency” (or, gay stuff), Everett chose to center this story around Wilde’s deathbed—the last few years of his life, post-imprisonment. This choice casts a dark shadow over a life that was marked by legendary excess, decadence, and boozy encounters.
Dejected and snubbed from his old life in high society, the aged playwright spends his last days in Northern France. Even during his penniless exile, Wilde chased after men (or, young men) and clung to the few people who would still keep his company.
"Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” Wilde wrote in one of his last poems, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Despite the fact that he is unable to see his wife and two children, Wilde’s life continues on and comes to a quick end alongside his chosen family. He has given his whole self to an adoring public—one that quickly turns on him because of his Queerness. Through meticulously crafted vignettes, weaving together the past and the present, Everett paints a picture of a life full of sorrow and unabashed pleasure.
Only an openly Queer person like Everett could have told this story with a delicate balance of wit and tenderness. The film never becomes overly sentimental. As the landscape of Queer media becomes wider and more mainstream, it is important to differentiate a careful portrait like The Happy Prince from the Oscar bait dribble like The Danish Girl. Only a year or two ago, this film might have been made, starring a straight actor (Scarlett Johansson, perhaps).
The Happy Prince opens in Atlanta on October 26 at The Springs Cinema & Taphouse.