Oscar Wilde was one of the most celebrated authors of the nineteenth century, and was so well known a public figure that a scandalous 1894 novel, The Green Carnation, includes characters clearly based on Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. But his career came apart rapidly when Wilde filed an ill-advised libel suit against Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, which led to Wilde’s own arrest and conviction for “gross indecency” (sexual relations with men). After serving two years at hard labor in several British prisons, Wilde lived in France under the assumed name of “Sebastian Melmoth,” sinking into poverty and eventually dying three years later at age 46.
That’s a lot of drama for one life, so it’s not surprising that Rupert Everett, who wrote the screenplay for the Wilde biopic The Happy Prince as well as directing and starring in it, chose to concentrate on a short period in Wilde’s life. Unfortunately, he chose the least interesting period in Wilde’s life, his final years of decline, and fails to make a case for why the viewer should care. The Happy Prince is not the only biopic to make this perverse choice—other include The Iron Lady (2011), and Iris (2001)—and while I can imagine it’s a juicy acting challenge to play a public figure in their twilight years (unfortunately also supporting the case that this film is basically a vanity project by Everett, as well as an unsubtle bit of Oscar bait), there’s no reason to assume that anyone else will pay to watch it.
Wilde, as he is portrayed in this film, doesn’t do much to elicit our sympathy. He abuses those who do the most for him (notably Robbie Ross, played by Edwin Thomas, and Reggie Turner, played by Colin Firth), embraces those who are no good for him (notably Lord Alfred Douglas, played by Colin Morgan), and makes his own predicament worse through outlandish behavior and spending. In fact, Wilde’s last three years look remarkably like a protracted suicide attempt (“if I can’t be king of the literary world, I’d rather be dead!”), and while that choice may be tragic, the burden lies on the filmmaker to make it interesting.
Everett’s screenplay provides a convenient theme in the form of Wilde’s children’s story “The Happy Prince,” which is heard in fragments throughout the film (complete with an urchin who conveniently demands several times that Wilde continue the story). Using this story as a through line is an interesting idea, if also a bit arty, but the suggestion that the Wilde we see has any resemblance to the Prince in the story (who literally gives his all to help the poor) rings entirely false.
The Happy Prince is oddly disjointed, with strange flashbacks that interrupt the story without establishing sufficient context to explain who Wilde really was. Odd details are included but not followed up on, which suggests a lot of screenplay revisions (Everett began working on it some 10 years ago). For instance, Wilde’s wife Constance (Emily Watson) walks with great difficulty, and discusses visiting a surgeon she hopes can do something for her “wretched back”. Is this meant to imply that she contracted syphilis from her husband? Is it meant to elicit our sympathy for her? If the first, a bit of follow-up is needed, while if the latter, it goes contrary to the entire rest of her portrayal, which paints her as a joyless mother (an unnecessary scene of a sad Christmas with her two sons being a case in point) and an unyielding wife.
The best aspects of The Happy Prince are the cinematography by John Conroy, production design by Brian Morris, costume design by Giovanni Casalnuovo and Maurizio Millenotti, and overall attention to period detail by an international crew of experts in set decoration, hair, and makeup. Acting is also generally good across the board, with a particularly delightful bit by Tom Wilkinson as an Irish priest, but I’m less impressed with Everett’s performance than some other critics seem to be. In fact, if anyone deserves an Oscar for this film, it’s whomever designed and executed Everett’s makeup and costuming (complete with an ample fat suit), because collectively they make up the most convincing aspect of The Happy Prince. | Sarah Boslaugh