Director: Rupert Everett
Writer: Rupert Everett
Starring: Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson
At one point he was one of the most famous writers in England, but Oscar Wilde (Everett) spends his final years abroad with a fake identity, and looks back on the life he has lead in the only way he knows how.
When a film has the same individual directing, writing and starring as the leading character the alarm bells start flashing in my mind that it is going to be a self-indulgent vanity project, despite perhaps being made with the best of initial intentions and an individual’s undeniable passion for the film and its protagonist (The Birth of a Nation is a recent example). Or even worse than this; making a film that feels like a painfully generic warts and all biopic that just tells a very flat and bland story of its protagonist’s life in the hope that will be enough. Well, it is abundantly clear from his physically and emotionally committed performance that Rupert Everett has a great deal of genuine passion and care for the character and the story, but thankfully he also skilfully avoids the trappings of where similar films have fallen fowl and The Happy Prince is a deeply engaging and moving drama that allows us to empathise with its protagonist.
Focussing primarily on Oscar Wilde’s later years living in France and Italy under a false identity is I feel one of the reasons why The Happy Prince is so engaging and emotionally rewarding; Focussing on a smaller part of its protagonist’s life allows for a much deeper examination of the film’s core themes. At this stage Oscar Wilde has experienced the extreme highs and lows that his life has produced, and so he, and in turn the film, can reflect on these. The Happy Prince does take a little while to find its feet, with a constant toing and froing of short clips from various different points in Oscar Wilde’s life, but once it has established this it feels that Everett’s direction, performance and script all simultaneously grow in confidence to deliver a film that examine its core themes of forgiveness and redemption with genuine intelligence and suitable poignancy.
Everett also does treat the viewer with respect; he knows that most who will watch this film will know enough already about its protagonist, and so the flashbacks are used sparingly to only enhance and depict the internal pain and torment that Oscar Wilde feels because of the life that he has chosen to lead and some of the decisions he made that proved to have severe consequences for both him and those close to him.
Everett is also not afraid to show his character’s flaws; he can be obnoxious and oblivious to the genuine care and devotion that some in his life show, and this only helps us empathise with him even more. The film shows that Oscar Wilde’s decision making was often made by his heart and not his head, and in a time when homosexuality was illegal, this lead to singlehandedly ruining his life and almost completely undoing everything he had achieved. Apart from his fame, respect and dignity, the biggest victims were his wife and two children, and the main focus of the film is the internal pain Wilde suffers from this, while at the same time seeking some kind of redemption and forgiveness for the hurt that he has caused to those he cares about the most.
As Oscar Wilde, Rupert Everett gives an incredibly physical and raw performance and truly embodies the role of Oscar Wilde, making him a protagonist that it is impossible not to care about. Many of us may not be able to empathise with his exact situation, but thanks to the openness of Everett’s performance and the universal themes of the film’s narrative, we cannot help but truly care about Wilde and want him to find the redemption that he craves. There are also excellent supporting performances from Colin Morgan and Edwin Thomas as the two men that love Oscar, but they love him in very different ways, as does he love them both back, but also in very different ways. Colin Firth is probably only in the film because he is producer and Everett’s mate, but brings an assured touch of class in the few scenes that he has.
Everett’s direction is also top notch, capturing some of the stunning French and Italian scenery wonderfully, while also the intense claustrophobia of London and Paris. Despite the obvious beauty of some of the film’s more exotic locations, they often skilfully serve to enhance the loneliness and isolation of its main character that will be with him whether he is staring at the sea on the sun drenched Italian coast or in a claustrophobic and run-down hotel room in France. Everett’s film is a triumph in acting and directing, and thanks to the universal themes at its emotional core is also a deeply moving experience.
Everett shows a sharp focus and understanding to skilfully avoiding the trappings of this feeling like a vanity project or a generic biopic, The Happy Prince is a wonderfully made and acted film that explores some universal themes and is a deeply engaging and genuinely moving experience.