If dying, as the actors say, is easy, then Rupert Everett must have breezed through The Happy Prince.
The movie is essentially one long death scene, featuring Everett (who wrote and directed) as Oscar Wilde in the final, dismal three years of the author's life in exile and in ruin, before he finally succumbed to meningitis in Paris in 1900.
That makes the movie sound a bit more morose than it is. Everett — underneath some extra pounds and jowly prosthetics — plays Wilde as a man who keeps gloomy reality at bay with his famous wit, and also with absinthe, cocaine, and handsome young men.
The film picks up Wilde's story after his release from an English prison where he had been jailed on charges of "gross indecency" with men, ending his career as England's most celebrated man of letters. Wilde plans to live anonymously in France on a small allowance from his wife, Constance (Emily Watson), but his meager cash flow is contingent on his willingness to renounce the behavior that led to his arrest in the first place.
Wilde is having none of this. He takes up with former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie (Colin Morgan), even if it means estrangement from his wife and family, and poverty, and even if it means instigating the jealousy of devoted friend and lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas).
Part of Everett's job here is to make us see Wilde as his friends saw him – reckless and selfish, but so candid about his weaknesses and so skilled at describing them that his failings were always forgiven. Everett plays Wilde as a man with a dramatist's flair, in the theater and in life (cinematographer John Conroy's hand-held camera, always just a step away, follows Wilde around like an eager puppy).
The movie is at its best in France and Italy with Wilde and his entourage. Attempts to integrate Watson's character into the story are less successful – husband and wife never reunited, and Watson's one note of brittle disappointment leaves us feeling that she's being underused. A thread that has Wilde telling stories to French boys, avatars of his estranged sons, also feels schematic and flat.
Elsewhere there is the feeling of period detail and atmosphere in search of emotion, and repetitive scenes of Wilde and Bosie blowing what little money they have on champagne start to grow tiresome.
"Must we talk about money at lunch?" says Bosie, with an air of aristocratic entitlement that Morgan plays almost too well. (Must we watch you have lunch?)
Happy Prince is also, at times, one of those historical dramas that has onlookers laughing with a forced gusto at famous lines, as though Wilde were Carl Reiner, and needed a laugh track.
It finds the right harmonized note of melancholy and humor in its closing moments, when a good-natured clergyman (Tom Wilkinson) is summoned to the author's deathbed, for a ritual of absolution that neither man is sure is going to stick.