One senses that Rupert Everett – who wrote, directs and stars in this involving drama – has been waiting a long time to tell his story of the last days of Oscar Wilde; having played Wilde’s alter ego in film adaptations The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, and starred as the man himself in a 2012 revival of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. Although Wilde’s tumultuous life has been well-covered in cinema before, previous films (Stephen Fry’s Wilde, Ken Hughes’ The Trials of Oscar Wilde) have tended to shy away from portraying the ignominy and poverty of his difficult final years, a topic which Everett tackles head on in this superior biopic, due to screen in a Special Gala at the 2018 Berlinale.
Once one of the most famous authors in England, the great man of letters is now living in a kind of exile in Naples and Paris after being released from prison following a conviction for “gross indecency”; the result of his very public affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan).
Lying on his death bed, Wilde’s eventful life comes flooding back via expertly interspersed flashbacks, featuring his glory days as the toast of the literary establishment and the beginning of his downfall – cast out by his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson), though still supported by loyal allies Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). Now, viewing his situation with humour and an ironic detachment, he must nevertheless draw on his internal reserves to face the end of his life – and the wreckage of his public self – with courage.
Following the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2017, it’s a very timely reminder of the shame society cast on those who dared to display their desires openly and the poisonous hypocrisy with which that same society would tolerate homosexuality almost entirely as long as it was hidden. Everett is magnificent as Wilde, giving a moving and richly characterised performance as a man who remains uncompromising even as he is heavily compromised, situating him both entirely within and ahead of his own time.