The Happy Prince
2018, R, 105 min. Directed by Rupert Everett. Starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Tom Wilkinson.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 26, 2018
The final three years of Oscar Wilde’s life, which are dramatized in The Happy Prince, were a dark period much at odds with the public perception of the author as a successful writer and bon vivant acclaimed throughout Europe and North America. These years, 1897-1900, follow Wilde’s release from jail after serving two years of hard labor for the crime of “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexual behavior). He remained in exile from England throughout those last years, and was most frequently drunk and impoverished, a damaged hulk that was now a shabby imitation of the figure he cut as a dapper young aesthete. Although a few remained loyal, most friends and fans abandoned Wilde, and when he was recognized by the public, he often became the victim of name-calling and gay-bashing. It was a dismal end to what had been, until his trial, a sparkling life.
Rupert Everett wrote and directed this film, a longtime passion project, in which he also stars as Wilde. It’s a peerless performance, one that no doubt benefits from Everett’s previous appearances in adaptations of Wilde’s plays on stage and screen. He successfully conveys a multitude of feelings and bearings, ranging from pride to degradation and debauchery to Catholic repentance. Wilde resumes his tempestuous affair with Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Morgan), whose father was responsible for his imprisonment, while at the same time he strives to reunite with his estranged wife Constance (Watson, good in a thankless role). There are scenes during which Everett’s Wilde commands our wide-eyed attention, still mesmerizing despite his physical and psychological decline. Yet in between those quickened moments, The Happy Prince trudges forward with monotonous uniformity.
Everett and his cinematographer John Conroy seem to have associated a dark narrative mood with dark lighting and ambience. Oftentimes, characters are presented in heavy shadow and dim illumination. Memories of incidents from the past intrude on the present. At times, prior knowledge of Wilde’s life and career might augment the viewer’s understanding of these events, although it’s not a requirement. However, the story comes to life only in vivid bursts, and then relapses into a steady biographical progression that has little sense of building toward anything climactic. The Happy Prince, the title of a Wilde-authored fairy tale that the character is shown reciting to children at various points in the film, will excite fans of the author who regard the appreciation of his life and writings to be a gateway to an understanding of the century that was ushered in with Wilde’s death. Others will be lulled to sleep by the tale.