The Happy Prince, 2018.
Written and Directed by Rupert Everett.
Starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Edwin Thomas, Julian Wadham, André Penvern, Joshua McGuire, and Anna Chancellor.
The untold story of the last days in the tragic times of Oscar Wilde, a person who observes his own failure with ironic distance and regards the difficulties that beset his life with detachment and humor.
Following Oliver Wilde’s release from imprisonment under the ridiculous crime of gross indecency with men, he receives a letter from his lover Bosie that came while incarcerated/working off two years of hard labor, and within what feels like the span of five minutes Oliver goes from tearing apart the letter in front of his peers determined to never allow himself to head down the path of homosexuality again, to quickly rearranging the fragmented paper scraps like a jigsaw puzzle eager to read his supportive words. It’s not much longer before they meet up again. Sum it up as “the heart wants what the heart wants”, where, unfortunately, that desire comes in during regressive, backward state of mind times.
The reason I hone in on this bit specifically is simple. The Happy Prince is, putting it bluntly, overwritten (save for this scene that briefly hits on some psychological complexities) as if it’s a lesser work from one of the famed Irish author’s British plays, never letting up on hammy dialogue that flips back and forth between being intriguing philosophical musings and plain old boring nonsense. The film clearly wants to elicit an emotional reaction, which is perfectly fine considering it is about both a key literary and gay figure wrongfully punished, although frustratingly justifiably so accounting for the nonsensical laws in place at the turn of the 20th century. Audiences witness everything from a genius on his deathbed juxtaposed with simpler times consisting of family and riches, and harassment over his sexual orientation complete with mini-flashbacks of scuffles against homophobes and humiliating shaming in the form of being spit on by fellow citizens. Then there’s the third act which largely deals with Oliver Wilde on his deathbed surrounded by his remaining close pals that goes on for about 30 minutes too long; being brutally honest, I looked at how much film time was remaining quite a few minutes thinking to myself “yes, your story is sad, but can you please die already?”
Call me heartless and lacking in empathy if you must, but The Happy Prince struggles to land emotional beats despite the film being perfectly competent in all the fundamentals (writing, directing, acting, production design, so on and so forth). Surprisingly, it’s not that the film is doing too much, but that it might be doing too little; there are a few scenes with Emily Watson playing Oliver Wilde’s confused, lost, but ultimately forgiving wife in London (Oliver was exiled to France after serving his hard labor), who basically never becomes a full-fledged character, instead disappearing rather abruptly and without any weight. Similarly weak is a small appearance from the incredibly talented Colin Firth, who also does nothing.
Aside from the committed performance from Rupert Everett (more on him in a bit), the most affecting dynamics come whenever Oliver is on screen was one of his lovers. Bosie (Colin Morgan) has a flamboyant personality, is snaky, and plays up the selfishness of his character alongside Oliver’s literary editor Robbie (Edwin Thomas), a deeply caring individual suffering from a bout of unrequited romantic love from the playwright. Yes, The Happy Prince does capture authentically realized glimpses of ostracism and occasionally successfully gets into the conflicted headspace of Oliver, but the best work in the movie comes from these two essentially fighting for the man’s love in his dying days. More flashbacks aren’t the answer, but it would have been nice to see more actual character dynamics instead of a host of glorified cameos/small supporting characters.
With that said, there’s no denying the physical transformation that Rupert Everett has gone through to disappear into the role is impressive, aided by fantastic makeup effects. Additionally, The Happy Prince is the most passionate of passion projects for someone in the film industry; making his writing and directorial debut, Rupert Everett also takes on a role that is clearly beloved to him, one that he has performed multiple times on stage whether it be as Oliver Wilde himself or characters of his creation. There’s no denying the love put into this craft, but the end result feels basic, bland, safe, and intended for Rupert Everett himself more than any audience. Give some points to Rupert Everett for condensing the narrative to Oliver’s final years, but there still exists a scattershot approach that sacrifices the necessary mental intimacy to truly paint the tragic artist as his own Judas.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com