The Happy Prince follows renowned poet, playwright and author Oscar Wilde in his final days. Now an outcast and disenchanted figure, Wilde considers his heyday as well as the aftermath of being imprisoned for indecency. Though he struggles in poverty and exile in France, Wilde finds escape in the drugs and prostitution offered by the seedy underground. He finds occasional moments of joy and refuses to despair.
Written by and starring Rupert Everett in the leading role, The Happy Prince also marks the My Best Friend’s Wedding’s star’s directorial debut. It is a fairly common move at this point for actors to turn to directing, and while many have hit the ground running with their debuts, such as Kenneth Branagh, Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck, over the years, there have also been many who failed the transition, Nicholas Cage and Ryan Gosling being examples. Everett’s talents as a director fall somewhere in between, demonstrating promise in his first film, but also naivety. His talent as a performer, on the other hand, is undeniable.
Everett is truly majestic in the role of Oscar Wilde, speaking the words of the Irish writer with utter care and devotion. His performance entrances the audience, and he movingly portrays Wilde’s joys, disappointments and frustrations through the highs and lows of his lifetime. While The Happy Prince is clearly Everett’s great passion project, it’s a shame that he doesn’t have quite the skill and knowledge to carry out the project to its full potential.
We follow the character of Wilde through different epochs with make-up effectively giving Everett a different, age, weight and look, according to the era. However, the cutting between past and present, with the inclusion of flashbacks and cutaways within flashbacks, gets terribly messy. While it is admirable that Everett wanted to make the film his way, the result is confusing and gives the film a jumpy flow that could have been done without.
The actor-director-writer surrounds himself with a talented supporting cast which includes the likes of Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan and Tom Wilkinson (the latter of whom plays an amusing Irish priest). Clearly the cast are aware that this is Everett’s show and step back to let him take centre stage. Morgan and relative newbie Edwin Thomas (who gives a restrained, earnest performance that makes him the second biggest standout after Everett) get the most screen time as Wilde’s lover and confidante, respectively, but the competitive relationship that Everett writes for the characters feels misguided and forced.
A story about suffering, love, happiness and hedonism, The Happy Prince won’t leave you uplifted but it will remind you of the trailblazer that was Oscar Wilde. Moreover, Everett’s performance is so exceptional it forgives the movie’s shortcomings.