Movie Review: ‘THE HAPPY PRINCE’ – Wilde boys fallen far from glory
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE HAPPY PRINCE
Billed as “the untold story of the last days of Oscar Wilde,” writer-director-star Rupert Everett’s THE HAPPY PRINCE not only explores the witty rapscallion’s final hours, but also his tumultuous relationships with ex-lovers and friends. Seeing someone of Everett’s caliber perform as a man shunned by the society that once embraced him should be a slam dunk – as it was when he played Wilde on stage in 2012’s revival of David Hare’s play THE JUDAS KISS. But this cinematic iteration is not nearly as rousing – and dishearteningly so. In order to distinguish the film from the award-winning play, Everett finds a less fascinating avenue into the vagabond’s tragic life rather than a more complete picture of the tempestuous, combustible love affair that drove him to self-destruction. At least it looks gorgeous.
When we first meet poet/ playwright Oscar Wilde (Everett), he’s living in exile, begging a former fan for spare cash on the rain-slicked, expertly-fogged streets of Paris. Years prior (and maddeningly relegated to opening title card text), his young former lover Lord Alfred Boise Douglas (Colin Morgan) got a very married Oscar in trouble with the authorities for sodomy (but really for being openly gay). It led to a two year imprisonment and left his social standing in tatters. Now desperate, unkempt, corpulent and going by a fake name, Oscar spends what’s left of his days drunkenly bouncing from one cafe to another. He seeks what little solace he can out of superficial relationships until his body begins to deteriorate.
On his death bed, Wilde slips in and out of lucidity in an ugly hotel room that elicits his infamous comment, “I’m in mortal combat with this wallpaper and one of us has to go.” His memories focus on his post-jail time on the coast of France, writing new material and spending time with supportive friends Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). He even starts a letter writing campaign in hopes to reconcile with long-suffering wife Constance (Emily Watson). However, it’s not long until ghosts of lovers past creep up on him, once again throwing his life into easily preventable turmoil.
For the first twenty minutes, it’s difficult to get a handle on the character of Wilde as Everett’s performance wanders into self-indulgent territory. He makes it clear this is his own acting showcase, going overboard in his performance. It seems he might burst out of his distracting prosthetics and makeup like the Kool-Aid man bursts out of a brick wall. Behind the camera, he and editor Nicolas Gaster visualize Wilde’s frazzled state of mind with frenetic non-linear jump cuts, wildly cross-cutting from his past and present to make their very obvious points. Things don’t settle until the character is relegated to bed rest.
While Everett doesn’t shy away from showing Wilde as an unlikable, destructive hero, he also illustrates the motivating factors behind his subject’s psyche. Was Wilde dealt a raw deal by not being able to live out his truth in a time not conducive to it? Of course. Was he attracted to the drama of his romantic entanglements over the partners themselves? Most assuredly. Was he the instigator of his own romantic demise, or was he the victim? It’s complicated. That said, these mitigating factors may not be enough for audiences to empathize with his journey.
Everett fails to make the out-of-control fire of the Boise-Wilde relationship burn brightly enough for the audience to understand Wilde’s perpetual lure. Since we aren’t privy to the mind games, manipulation or the love that sparked their oil and vinegar romance, the end of life narrative angle suffers. We primarily see Boise as an impossible jerk and Wilde as foolish rather than two people worth rooting for. I actually spent much of the film pondering the details of the opening title card: How did Boise convince Wilde that the plan to sue his wealthy father would work without landing him in jail? That’s the story we should’ve seen.
While the narrative disappoints, the aesthetics swoop in to satisfy. Costume design by Giovanni Casalnuovo and Maurizio Millenotti is flawless, impeccable work. Cinematography by John Conroy is a visual, beguiling feast. It’s worth the admission price alone to see the sumptuous imagery on the big screen. Scenes set in Boise and Wilde’s Naples love nest are gauzily effused, drenched in the protagonist’s male gaze. The yellow and blue color palette of Wilde’s flashbacks reflects the oscillating cold and warm undertones of the lovers’ romance.
THE HAPPY PRINCE will be playing in limited release starting on October 10.