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LAFF Review: ‘The Happy Prince’ is a dour tale with a sparkling wit at the center

Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief

As someone who spent the better part of their adolescence studying literature, the work of Oscar Wilde is both the most basic person to appreciate and the most complex. His works of ribaldry and jest light up many a gloomy day spent in classes, and yet Hollywood hasn’t gone crazy detailing his life and exploits cinematically. The 1997 biopic Wilde has promise, and the various adaptations of his work have pros and cons. But no director has sought to bring to the carpet the man himself, particularly in his bleak final days. Rupert Everett, best known for his work playing in Wilde adaptations, has made it his life’s work to tell this story and the final result, The Happy Prince, makes up in passion what it lacks in technique.

By the 1900s the acclaimed writer Oscar Wilde (Everett) is living hand to mouth after the events of his previous jail sentence for sodomy. Living his final days in Paris, Wilde struggles to make amends with his beleaguered wife (Emily Watson) and the feckless young man who’s caused him nothing but grief (Colin Morgan).

With certain movies, you can see the money that did (or didn’t) go into it. Movies can feel like money pits, which is why The Happy Prince should be praised for, more than anything else, the love for its subject. Everett is a massive Wilde fan, and knowing his appreciation for the material – which took over a decade to materialize on-screen – makes up for its deficiencies in style. Gone is the charming rake of Wilde’s younger days and in his place is a man wracked by guilt, regret, and hostility. Coming in the years after his prison sentence, a fact Wilde himself was never truly able to get over, the acclaimed author’s spark is thought to have dimmed. Swathed in old age makeup, Everett doesn’t deign to make this a pretty demise. The camera, usually tight on Wilde’s face, captures the profuse sweat on his brow, the anguish that pulls on his mouth and seeps out his eyes. This is a man whom death could release. As Wilde infamously said during this period, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has to go.”

Everett, who also wrote the screenplay alongside directing and starring, keeps an eye towards showing us why Wilde remains so enigmatic. The script is peppered with famous Wilde bon mots, but also gives the director a chance to show his own ability to deduce how Wilde would speak. The language here is utterly beautiful, spoken in both English and French. Wilde’s view of the world could be nihilistic, but beautiful in its doom. A throughline of the film is Wilde telling the story of “The Happy Prince,” a tale of a swallow stripping a beautiful monument of its finery in order to help the poor.

For Everett, Wilde is the swallow and the princely statue. The author, despite his poverty, takes the time to give of himself to others – whether it be local street urchins who want to hear his stories in lieu of payment for assignations, or his friends who love him but want him to work. Everett is utterly captivating in a role that he was born to play. Not only is Everett able to  read Wilde’s dialogue in a trippingly manner, but he beautifully underscores the pain of a man so closely aligned with hedonism. Wilde’s greatest sorrow comes from his doomed relationship with Alfred Bosie Douglas (Morgan), the young man who ended up getting Wilde sent to prison. Wilde’s attempt to reconcile with his wife ends up shattering the minute “Bosie” returns, but it’s evident to see why Wilde is drawn to the man. Morgan’s cool demeanor works perfectly off of Everett, whose Wilde feels he’s all alone in the world, with Bosie as the only man able to understand him.

Yet for a man who felt himself wholly alone, Everett showcases that he wasn’t. As his poor wife, Constance, Emily Watson presents a woman both of her and time and outside it. She loves her husband and is eager to reunite, especially for her two sons, and yet can’t abide by his flagrant disregard for her feelings. The Wilde children aren’t predominant figures in the narrative, but they factor prominently in both Constance and Oscar’s decisions. The two boys, who believe their father is in a hospital, are soothed by Constance who has to lie to them about the hospital patients having a “party.” Fooling her kids into believing that their father is happy, but away from them for a reason. Conversely, Wilde’s stories are an attempt to be closer to his boys; he tells “The Happy Prince” to boys who remind him of them. On his deathbed, Wilde sees his children in front of him, the one thing he couldn’t have to secure his happiness.

Colin Firth, a Wilde alumnus who starred opposite Everett in The Importance of Being Earnest, plays Wilde’s friend Reggie. But it is Edwin Thomas’ Robbie Ross who takes scenes away from the more established actors. Ross plays Wilde’s closest confidant, one who has seemingly never asked the author of anything. With Bosie’s arrival, Robbie knows Wilde is doomed and Thomas’ final scenes demonstrate that his character, more than any other, hoped Wilde could fix himself.

Everett, being a first-time director, is allowed a few technical mistakes. He wears his influences heavy on his sleeve, particularly the work of Tom Hooper. Like Hooper, Everett appears to employ handheld cameras, with obvious over-the-shoulder movements and so many close-ups you’re anticipating seeing up someone’s nose. The film also goes through a shockingly high number of time jumps and editing gaps over the first 20-minutes, starting in 1890 then cutting to 10 years later only to cut to “Paris” with little indication of whether this is still 1900 or not. There’s also little sense of time in Wilde’s demise, whether it be a week’s worth of time that’s passed or a month. Regardless, Everett was born to direct period pieces and it’d be fantastic to see him tackle some of Wilde’s works for an adaptation as he has a sharp grasp on what makes the author’s work so magnificent.

The Happy Prince is made for Wilde die-hards, but those looking to see the blatant love for an author should take note. Everett is fantastic, despite being undone by some bush-league technical mistakes. I’d be open to seeing a Rupert Everett-directed adaptation of A Woman of No Importance.

Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5