D: Rupert Everett / 106m
Cast: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Tom Wilkinson, Béatrice Dalle, Anna Chancellor, Julian Wadham, John Standing, Ronald Pickup
Oscar Wilde (Everett) has served his time in Reading Gaol and is living in France, supported by the kind attentions of one of his few remaining friends, Robbie Ross (Thomas). Suffering from ill health as a result of his stay in prison, Wilde is a shadow of his former self, wracked by torment and disillusionment, and his passion for writing exhausted. Against the better judgment and advice of his friends, including Reggie Turner (Firth), and his estranged wife, Constance (Watson), Wilde is reunited with the source of his downfall, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Morgan). They live together, though the relationship is strained, and Douglas’s selfish behaviour begins to drive an irreversible wedge between them. When their families each threaten to remove their financial support for the pair, the relationship founders completely, and Wilde becomes a lonely figure wandering from café to café spending what little money he has on alcohol. With his health deteriorating even further, Wilde becomes incapacitated, and is forced to see out the remainder of his days in a dingy Paris hotel room…
When actors or directors announce that their next movie will be a long cherished passion project, it’s often time to nod sagely and mutter, “that’ll be nice”. Rupert Everett had been trying to get a movie made about the final three years in the life of Oscar Wilde for over five years, and he’s finally succeeded. You can imagine the pitch to potential investors, though: a movie about an alcoholic writer in the decrepitude of his final years, and without any chance of a happy ending. Full marks then to Everett for his perseverance, because despite the downbeat nature of the material, and the sadness of seeing a once great man reduced to abject penury, The Happy Prince is a fascinating and poignant examination of the last three years of Wilde’s life, and how those years took a further, irrevocable toll on him after two years in prison. It’s a largely melancholy, subdued account, but there are moments of joy and laughter and hope in amongst the heartbreak and despair, as Wilde reflects on his success and his subsequent downfall. Unafraid to show Wilde at his worst, and with the worst happening to him, Everett presents an unflinching portrait of the artist as an old man robbed of all his powers.
The movie has all the hallmarks of a grim tragedy, from Wilde, Turner and Ross being pursued in Italy by English thugs looking to intimidate and bully a great man brought low, to the inevitability of Douglas’ rejection of Wilde when money becomes an issue. Everett is magnificent in a role that he’s often unrecognisable in, the quality of the make up obliterating the actor/director’s angular features; he’s like a poster child for rampant, self-inflicted dissolution. What Everett captures perfectly is the sense of a man who knows his life is effectively over, but who clings to it, desperately, and however he can, even if it’s inappropriate (his drinking etc.). Everett, who also wrote the script, is a confident, detailed director, and he has a good eye for composition that some more practiced directors would be envious of. He’s an unselfish actor too, allowing the likes of Morgan and Thomas to shine in roles that might otherwise have appeared to be in subservience to the orbit of Everett’s own. That the movie isn’t as heavy going as it looks is another testament to the skill with which Everett assembles the various elements of Wilde’s post-prison experiences, and the way he weaves the story of the Happy Prince through the narrative, and has it reflect the state of Wilde’s own life depending on where the story has gotten to. For a first-time writer/director, Everett has revealed himself to be someone who should be encouraged to get behind the camera again as quickly as possible.
Rating: 8/10 – though the movie examines the tragedy of Wilde’s final years, The Happy Prince isn’t the depressing, maudlin experience that some viewers might be expecting, and instead is a quietly powerful expression of the will to survive in the bleakest of circumstances and surroundings; with effective supporting turns from the likes of Firth, Watson and Wilkinson, and appropriately gloomy cinematography by John Conroy, this is yet another potent reminder of Wilde the man, and his legacy.