It will come as a surprise to exactly no one that for his directorial debut Rupert Everett has written himself into the role of the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Everett has been aging into the portrayal since his famous turn as the waggish best friend in 1997's “My Best Friend's Wedding” and has been working to bring this story to the screen for the last 10 years. Still, his first performance as Wilde only recently came about, in the 2016 revival of David Hare’s two-act play, “The Judas Kiss,” as a replacement for the miscast Liam Neeson from the original 1998 production.
Everett's screenplay picks up where Hare's play leaves off: Wilde's last years in exile after serving a sentence of two years' hard labor for "gross indecency.” For this portrayal Everett undertakes a distracting physical transformation that lands him somewhere between Alfred Molina and Danny DeVito as the Penguin in “Batman Returns.”
Much of the story is based on mostly true accounts of Wilde's escape to France, with his literary executor and former lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and friend and fellow aesthete Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) loyally re-creating the salons of happier days in the rented rooms of a Paris hotel—when not having to fend off assaults from their less-forgiving countrymen abroad.
Wilde could have lived in relative comfort this way, but the man who wrote the infamous line about being able to resist everything but temptation is enticed to reconcile with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as "Bosie” (Colin Morgan), his golden-haired companion in indulgence and imprudence. (Bosie encouraged a libel suit against Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, which led to Wilde's imprisonment.)
They abscond to Naples, Italy, where they live beyond their respective allowances, doled out by the long-suffering women in their life; for Wilde it's his wife, Constance (Emily Watson). They befriend a handsome waiter and stage elaborate gentlemen's parties, at one belittling the waiter's Catholic mother as she searches for the harlots she assumes must be in hiding at one of the parties.
Hearing of his reunion with Bosie, Constance cuts off his stipend and any chance of a reunion with his two sons. But soon enough Wilde finds substitutes in a young Paris rent boy and his cheeky kid brother, products of Everett's imaginings, to whom he tells the story of "The Happy Prince," his story of a statue that allows a swallow to take his gold covering to feed the poor.
Everett, reaching for but failing to secure a poetic parallel, seems oblivious to the implications of showing Wilde narrating the story for his own sons at bedtime versus offering a story to a young boy with whom he has sex. This deafness to tone pervades more than one scene in the film, as if in his decade-long desire to bring the story to screen to play Wilde and provide a showcase for the famous quips, Everett has overlooked the actual story. “For each man kills the thing he loves," wrote Wilde in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” That sentiment has never been truer.