Ten years of struggle come to an end for Rupert Everett, as his dream film about the closing moments in the life of Oscar Wilde finally graces theaters. However, the end result of The Happy Prince is one that’s not happy, but rather dreary, unfocused and amateurish, despite moments of potential as a filmmaker.
His body ailing, Oscar Wilde lives in exile, surviving on the flamboyant irony and brilliant wit that defined him.
In show business, it’s no secret that every actor, both aspiring and established, has their dream role. Whether it’s a character of their own creation or a historical figure, an actor won’t consider his or her career career complete without this one performance under their belt. Actor Bradley Cooper’s recent remake of A Star Is Born set in the contemporary music scene proved he had as much talent behind the camera as he does in front of it, and Mel Gibson won an Academy Award in 1996 for directing Braveheart, his first passion project.
Unfortunately, other actors’ get themselves lost in their passion for the material they want to bring to life, and the quality of their work suffers as a result. Actor/director Warren Beatty waited too long to get his passion project about Howard Hughes off the ground, and what resulted in 2016’s Rules Don’t Apply was an endearing film rife with enthusiastic performances from its ensemble and an engaging story in the first half. Sadly, its potential was squandered by a repetitive second half that turned the film into a showcase of Hughes’s most eccentric moments, and subsequently, Beatty’s stellar but self-serving performance.
Meanwhile, Rupert Everett is an accomplished British character actor in his own right, and has reportedly spent ten years trying to get a passion project of his own off the ground that chronicles the tragic final days in the life of acclaimed poet, Oscar Wilde. His journey finally comes to an end this year with his directorial debut, The Happy Prince, and when it comes to actors and their dream projects, his straddles the line between ambitious failure and pleasant surprise, but ultimately suffers from uneven direction amongst hints of promise.
The Happy Prince sets the stage for the esteemed poet Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett), who lives in exile in Paris circa-1900 existing under a pseudonym begging passers-by for money on the streets. He spends what he receives on drinks at a bar he frequents, in addition to rent in a small apartment while living with a strange bleeding from the ears. One night of heavy drinking leads him to fall on his head, prompting an examination by a doctor who discovers his pre-existing condition. Oscar uses the time waiting for his diagnosis by reconnecting with his friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), rekindling the relationship with his old flame Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan), and attempts to reconcile with his wife Constance (Emily Watson) while reciting his most famous works of poetry to anyone who will listen, and pontificating about what love did to his life upon reflection.
In his directorial debut, Rupert Everett shows strong potential in his work behind the camera as a storyteller, especially when he conveys Oscar’s state of isolation. An example comes early in the film during a flashback to Oscar’s time in prison where he is framed through the tiny window of a peephole in the door of his jail cell, and again when he is forced to move from Reggie’s beach-side estate, and the camera frames him through the open door of the carriage about to take him away.
This extends further to represent the forbidden nature of his relationship with Bosie when their reunion is obscured upon their passionate embrace by a passing train. Meanwhile, in the lead role, Everett is constantly engaging as Oscar Wilde; speaking his dialogue with the same poetic eloquence as his body of work, while portraying the unorthodox demeanor of the iconic writer with eccentric class, and reciting his poetry with dignified, but passionate longing. It’s also worth noting that in the same vein of many period dramas before it, The Happy Prince boasts well-crafted cinematography and production design that places the silhouettes of passers-by in the foggy streets of London, while the saturated colors of the green grass, and the blue skies and oceans are contrasted by the muted colors of the houses in which Wilde exiles himself.
Unfortunately, like Beatty before him, Rupert Everett loses himself in his love for Wilde and his subject matter, and his inconsistent direction is prevalent by The Happy Prince’s second act. While the film’s main focus is on Oscar’s final days, flashbacks are employed to jump several years back in time to show moments from Wilde in happier times up to his conviction; such as when he introduces his play An Ideal Husband to an audience of hundreds, spends time with his young sons, and intimate moments during his prohibited relationship with Bosie.
The non-linear structure jumps ten years forward in time not only a minute in, but provides the necessary information to keep audiences engaged, until it’s abandoned by the second act. What results is a movie that’s hard to follow as flashbacks begin within flashbacks, and jumps back to moments in the main timeline where Wilde appears younger than he should look. The film even starts out with an effective framing device in a recitation of one of his short stories that comes up twice in the first act, only to not be brought back around until the final ten minutes in between the labyrinth of flashbacks.
There’s also not a lot of emotional resonance to The Happy Prince; the audience is expected to already know of Wilde’s genius going into the film, and while it’s easy to be enamored by the diction Everett uses to recite Oscar’s passionate ruminations about lust and state of being as he and Bosie scan the halls of tombs in an ancient museum, the film elects to move along at a leisurely pace despite the tragic stakes at hand. It also plays the nature of Oscar’s tragic circumstances safe by glossing over his time in prison, and conflicts against society as an out homosexual in the briefest of moments. It doesn’t help when Everett’s attempts to be dynamic are hindered by amateurish direction; in a scene where Bosie and Oscar have an argument, the intensity of their conflict is stripped away when the words they shout at each other are dropped out in favor of the strong wind around them in the most basic of hand-held wide shots.
The Happy Prince isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but given the time and valiant effort Rupert Everett put into bringing his dream project to life on the silver screen, it can’t not be an underwhelming one, especially when there’s something enigmatic about Oscar Wilde’s genius that begs for commentary. But the end result of Everett’s directorial debut is a valiant effort, but ultimately a bleak, bland and disorganized film that serves as a gateway for cinephiles wanting to get into Wilde’s poetry, and something for enthusiasts of the beloved poet to check out, at most. In one of many flashbacks, Oscar gives Bosie a poem of his for a second opinion, and his lover describes The Happy Prince best when he responds, “Underneath the prose, there’s no substance.”