A Film a Week - The Happy Prince

It is obvious that Rupert Everett’s debut as a writer-director, Oscar Wilde biography focused on his last three years of life The Happy Prince, was a passion project. Everett played Wilde’s literary alter-ego in Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband and Wilde himself in the theatre play The Judas Kiss as he does in his own film, so we can even debate that he developed some kind of Wilde obsession. However, it is hard to see that from the meandering beginning of the film.

The good news is that The Happy Prince and the portrait of Wilde in it as a troubled man, fallen socialite and literary genius just needs a bit more time to kick in, and the film gets better and more emotionally resonant with time. Those acquainted with the biographical facts will not find anything that new here, but Wilde’s fall from grace shown a couple of times in the flashback scene on the train station where Wilde as a prisoner was spat on by an angry mob serves really well. On the other hand, the other recurring flashback scenes of Wilde telling his titular tale to his children as a bed-time story seems a bit sentimental and does not do much to establish his character as a man longing for family life as intended.

The focus is somewhere else, on relationships with his wife Constance (Emily Watson) which is more on the financial side and his friends and lovers sometimes providing support like his publisher Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend Reggie Turner (Colin Firth), but usually leading to more and more trouble like Alfred “Boise” Douglas (portrayed as a divine-looking, but charmless spoiled brat by Colin Morgan), Wilde’s financial struggle not just to get by but also to maintain the hedonist lifestyle, constant moving from one place to another, writer’s block and schemes to somehow get around it. Most of all, it is about his desperate search for love anywhere he could (not) possibly find it.

Which brings us to the title. The tale itself was, like most of Wilde’s work in that genre, atypically dark and with a bleak ending instead of a happy one, which goes well with the generally dark tone of the film. But Wilde as character is not selfless like the statue of the prince in the story. Maybe he is in an emotional sense (to all the wrong people), but in his actions he is quite selfish. The parallel has been drawn somewhere else – to the decay and his crumbling physical and mental health pictured by John Conroy’s cinematography in grayish rainy colours and underlined by Rupert Everett’s acting always a notch above his sense of directing the film. Wilde here is an unhappy prince, like the statue stripped of its glamour desperately trying to revert the time and to be loved and accepted.

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