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There’s no doubting Rupert Everett’s affinity for Oscar Wilde. He has played the famed writer’s alter ego in film adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, and starred as the man himself in London and on tour in a 2012 revival of the biographical drama The Judas Kiss, which persuaded many critics to reconsider the 1998 David Hare play. Making his debut feature as writer-director, Everett returns to the role in what could almost be an expansion of that stage work, creating a richly inhabited characterization that counters louche irreverence with glimpses of melancholy fatalism.
But despite Everett’s command in the central performance and a script liberally sprinkled with amusing bons mots, The Happy Prince generates only faltering dramatic momentum and a shortage of pathos. It’s telling that the film’s most moving moments come from the limited screen time of the emotionally incandescent Emily Watson as Wilde’s estranged wife Constance. Her conflicted but enduring affections for her flamboyant husband, and his separation from their two boys, prove more stirring than his fatal attraction to Lord Alfred Douglas (Colin Morgan), the self-absorbed, epicene beauty known as Bosie.
It’s in the depiction of that key figure in the downfall of the once-celebrated, later publicly reviled Irish playwright and poet that Everett’s film suffers by comparison with the 1998 biopic Wilde. While Jude Law was a devilishly charismatic Bosie, an able manipulator with skin the color of honey, prone to outbursts of petulant rage, Morgan plays the character as an anemically unappealing brat, all too believable as a man who would go on to live an entirely unexceptional upper middle class life. It’s perhaps historically accurate that Bosie’s charms were elusive to most everyone but Wilde, though the unpersuasive representation of amour fou dulls the core tragedy and distances the audience.
Everett’s script also neglects to make much of Wilde’s loyal friend and literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas). He remains a colorless figure despite his obvious love for Oscar, and some droll discussion of their first sexual encounter, a pre-theater dalliance in a public lavatory. It seems a missed dramatic opportunity to have kept the rivalry and mutual dislike between Ross and Bosie so low-key. Colin Firth, whose association with Everett stretches back to Another Country in 1984, brings understated humor but also remains a peripheral figure as Oscar’s close friend and protector, the writer Reggie Turner.
That leaves Everett’s Oscar as a kind of decaying monument. He drifts in and out of raucous Parisian nightclubs, extravagant dinners for which he foots the bill on dwindling funds, quiet French seaside retreats or exuberant all-male frolics to keep Bosie entertained in Naples, despite the thrill of lust having soured for him. “I am my own Judas,” he moans at one point, but there’s little poignancy in his self-destructive behavior, even as the great man’s dignity, and ultimately his life, slip away from him.
Everett plays up the grotesque aspect of Wilde’s dark later years, aided by cinematographer John Conroy’s propensity for woozy handheld camerawork and production designer Brian Morris’ murky color palette. Just as Wilde used The Selfish Giant as a framing device, The Happy Prince threads that children’s story throughout, read by Oscar to his enthralled sons in flashbacks, and to shifty French urchin Leon (Matteo Salamone) following interludes of absinthe- and cocaine-fueled sex with the boy’s older brother Jean (Benjamin Voisin). But if the intention was to suggest a surrogate family of fellow societal outcasts for the exiled writer, the concept lacks dimension.
The devastating physical and mental effects of Wilde’s imprisonment and two years of hard labor on charges of gross indecency come back in memory shards of that hellish experience, as does the lingering hatred of English tourists, for whom he remains a deviant pariah. The lowest point that sealed his contempt for Britain was a prison transfer, recalled in vivid images of him remaining chained to a guard at a train station, abused and spat upon by the gathering crowd.
Those incursions from the past continually lurch into the present as Oscar ignores the advice of Robbie and Reggie, choosing to run off to Italy with Bosie. When his refusal to quit his male lover causes Constance, in Heidelberg with the boys, to cut off his allowance, Oscar blindly trusts in Bosie’s empty assurance of his family income. But that gravy train also dries up, leaving Oscar to retreat back to Paris to die.
The choice to start out in booze-soaked near-destitution gives Everett too few places to go beyond intermittent reprieves, and the flashes of Oscar’s glory days with celebrated stage productions are too brief and hallucinatory to convey the precipitous drop of his disgrace.
While the absence of didactic speeches or a contemporary perspective on “the love that dare not speak its name” seems admirably restrained, this is a film curiously lacking in a strong point of view on the persecution brought about by Wilde’s homosexuality. The abuse he suffers is merely squalid and ugly, like so much of his sweaty carousing. When Oscar performs the music hall song “The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery” for an audience of Montmartre revelers, it registers as the performance of a foppish clown, not of a man consumed by his own bad choices in love.
Everett seems most concerned with straddling the dichotomy of a man who used his ever-ready wit as a shield against the steep descent of his ruin. Wearing body padding, jowly makeup and an imperious frown, he excels at tracing the pathetic decline of a brilliant intellect, wallowing in sordid debauchery while refusing to consider a more practical approach to his future. Only a letter attempting reconciliation with Constance shows a half-hearted bid to break the downward cycle. It all makes for an absorbing but shapeless bio-drama that never gains much steam. It may be true to the sorry end of one of the late 19th century’s most original talents, but it makes for a bleak, unrewarding account of his martyrdom.
Production company: Maze Pictures, Entre Chien et Loup, in co-production with Palomar, Cine Plus Filmproduktion, Tele Munchen Gruppe, Proximus, RTBF
Cast: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Antonio Spagnuolo, Franca Abategiovanni, John Standing, Anna Chancellor, Beatrice Dalle
Director-screenwriter: Rupert Everett
Producers: Sebastian Delloye, Philipp Kreuzer, Joerg Schulze
Executive producers: Azim Bolkiah, Connie Filipello Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, Andreas Zielke, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Zygi Kamasa, Nick Manzi, Thorsten Ritter, Dirk Schuerhoff, Herbert G. Kloiber, Markus Zimmer
Director of photography: John Conroy
Production designer: Brian Morris
Costume designers: Maurizio Millenotti, Gianni Casalnuovo
Music: Gabriel Yared
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Casting: Celestia Fox
Sales: CAA, Beta Cinema
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
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