Rupert Everett writes, directs and stars in this downbeat chronicle of the last days of Oscar Wilde.
“The Happy Prince” is an ironic title for one of the most sour films I’ve seen in some time. Almost entirely devoid of any joy, Rupert Everett’s portrayal of the famous Irish poet and playwright is remarkably sad and tough to watch. The story picks up following Wilde’s release from prison in 1897. In England, he had been convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor. The years of imprisonment took its toll on the proud writer, who fled to Paris thereafter.
In the film, we meet Wilde already in France, where he lives hand-to-mouth. Penniless and pathetic, he fights with his sexual identity, professing that he’s found Jesus and will return to his wife and children. But the bridges have been burned. Few of his old friends and benefactors will help him, and his wife, Constance (Emily Watson), is conflicted, likely to move on without him.
Everett is very committed to the role, playing Wilde in various time periods. While in Paris, the great writer is depicted often as a frail man, whose life experiences have aged him far beyond his actual years. This is understandable, but the character lacks charisma and isn’t engaging. It’s a pity, this is not the Wilde we know from better films like 1997’s “Wilde.”
For a movie about a famous author, “The Happy Prince” doesn’t give us much about the man’s craft. This might be the most intriguing thing about his last days—why he’d lost the ability to write. He apparently wrote long letters from prison and poetry in Paris, but Everett concentrates on drinking, sex, and Wilde’s constant groveling for money. It’s just plain off-putting. Perhaps, this focus does shed some light on the writer’s block that Wilde may have been experiencing, but it doesn’t play very well on screen.
The attractive cast is impressive. Colin Firth appears as Wilde’s good friend Reggie Turner, and late in the film Tom Wilkinson plays a priest. It’s all very well-produced, but ultimately, “The Happy Prince” is a frustrating movie that gives us a feel for a decaying personality. But targeting the decline doesn’t translate into great cinema.