Rupert Everett writes, directs and stars in The Happy Prince, long described by the actor as a passion project to portray the dwindling days of Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde.
The toast of London in the late 19th century, Wilde later served two years in a hard labor camp after a legal twist of fate. Married with children as a front for his homosexuality, Wilde took many lovers — one being Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the son of Scottish nobleman the Marquess of Queensbury. After Wilde took the Marquess to court for a comment regarding his sexuality, Wilde was later charged with gross indecency and imprisoned.
The Happy Prince focuses on the last three years of Wilde’s life, spent under pseudonymous subterfuge in France where he’s besieged by patrons turned persecutors but buoyed by best friends like British author Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and the financial benefaction of his wife (Emily Watson). Wilde also befriends a pair of street-urchin siblings, one of whom he takes to bed and the other put to bed with the soothing storytelling of the film’s titular story.
However, Wilde is still unable to leave behind Bosie (Colin Morgan) against his better judgment. It’s all the more worrisome to Wilde’s ersatz valet, Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) — a one-time lover scorned by Wilde’s unshakeable obsession. “Each man kills the thing he loves, but each man does not die,” Wilde says, one of several instances where Everett carefully curates his subject’s eloquent expressions of regret and loneliness.
Appropriate for its portrait of a raconteur in repose, The Happy Prince is a melancholy mood piece of ruination. Wilde regularly walks along cliffs and beaches — settings cleaved and carved by natural forces no human could possibly fight much like Wilde’s love for Bosie, not entirely unrequited but certainly imbalanced in its depth and intensity. It makes for a film that’s often naturalistic and handsome but also a bit on the nose. At least it’s a stylistic motif in which Everett is confident, along with a camera that feels a bit askew in Wilde’s tunnel-vision style.
Splendorous and sun-dappled, The Happy Prince also never quite shifts out of a languorous dies irae for a depleted soul. It hits a gear and stays there. Everett’s makeup also resembles a Sacha Baron Cohen character at best and a cross between Jason Segel and Bruce Campbell at worst; you roll with it eventually but you never quite get past it. Plus, there’s little ground covered here that wasn’t done better in 1997’s Wilde, with Stephen Fry in the title role and Jude Law as Bosie. In a cheeky homage, Tom Wilkinson, who played the Marquess in Wilde, plays a priest here who delivers last rites for Wilde — a father delivering contrition rather than contempt.
Ultimately, Everett’s raffish charm carries The Happy Prince … but only so far. To use another of the film’s curated quotes, Wilde says that in choosing him, “the world becomes a picture you can look at but never touch.” A perfectly floral description for a perfectly average film.