“I am my own Judas.”
Oscar Wilde was once known as the toast of the town, a renowned author who possessed a practiced wit keen to entertain all. The title cards at The Happy Prince‘s opening reveal those grand times are behind Mr. Wilde. After taking the Marquess of Queensbury’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, as a lover, Wilde was publicly humiliated by the Marquess. Suing the lord for libel, Wilde quickly found himself convicted of indecency. This is in sharp contrast with the next shot of Wilde putting his sons to bed, reciting the story from which the film is titled, The Happy Prince. The sentient golden statue serving as a metaphor for a once grand existence, one tempered by the knowledge of human suffering. It’s referenced frequently so that the parallels between the statue and Wilde are exceptionally clear.
It is in this downtrodden state that the majority of Rupert Everett’s biopic tackles. Those hoping for a more comic take on Wilde’s personality should brace themselves because only the tragic figure will be presented. Two years of hard labor past him, Wilde hopes to begin anew in France. Still, the memory of Alfred Douglas, affectionately known as “Bosie,” haunts Wilde. Friends and loved ones (Colin Firth and Edwin Thomas) plead with him to avoid further persecution, but Wilde laments that life without love is not worth living, and plows ahead. Several thematic statements are made about Wilde’s self-destructive nature, with reminder upon reminder that Wilde was the author of his own destruction. “I am in mortal combat with this world,” he says, “one of us must go.”
Rupert Everett the actor is tremendously affecting, yet Everett the writer/director could stand to learn from the filmmaking maxim “show don’t tell.” Take this small but revealing scene where Wilde takes a breath inside a small parish. A priest brought low by aging and injury, gets on bended knee to start his morning prayer. A joy sparks in his eyes that betrays the age of his inner spirit. Seemingly afraid of a little quiet, Everett refuses to allow the audience to come to the same conclusion as Wilde, instead, choosing to use a voice over to beat the point home. “Suffering is nothing when there is love… love is everything,” is a sentiment that was best appreciated as a slight gesture. Making it literal as a voice-over as Wilde observes was a choice made in error. Just one of many such choices involving ostentatious camera techniques and an overly present score that attempts to dictate emotion.
Appearances in The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband proved Everett had a flair for Wilde’s words, but the actor decided to dig deeper by portraying Oscar as well as writing and directing a film chronicling the icon’s last years. Clearly, Rupert Everett reveres Wilde, as based on his efforts to make a film about the man have ranged almost a decade. Yet, good intentions don’t always result in great work, and a full portrait of Oscar Wilde never convalesces as one hopes. Everett as Wilde claims to be paralyzed by dark thoughts, but it is truly the film that suffers in that regard. Self-destructive artists who engineer their own downfalls are ubiquitous in pop culture; by focusing solely on the darker, tragic elements of the famed author’s life, it robs the transition that he makes of any power. Only Tom Wilkinson’s brief but levitous turn brightens the already dour proceedings, but it comes much too late.
Misery has its power in cinema, though it is best used when not combined with broad, often campish theatrics. By relying so significantly on a large swath of Wilde’s memories, no particular scenes grab the audience. More frustrating is that the rest of the supporting cast is also given little to work with. Outside of Wilde’s bratty lover, Bosie, played by Colin Morgan, few characters even register. One wonders why if Everett was going to dominate the picture, he’d surround himself with highly regarded thespians and give them little to do.
Realizing a dream of making a film tribute to a hero is an admirable gesture. It’s just a shame that too much of The Happy Prince feels more like a vanity project than an earnest attempt at deconstructing a legend. The Happy Prince would make for a lively play, but as a biopic, it wouldn’t pass the considerable standard that Oscar Wilde lived up to.