“The Happy Prince” is a gentle, reverent portrait of romantic ruin.
It is by design every bit reflective of the artist at the center of the film, Oscar Wilde. From Wilde’s lyric prose woven throughout its screenplay to its lighting and production design, the film strives to evoke the literary romanticism with which Wilde is synonymous.
Writer/director/star Rupert Everett (“An Ideal Husband“) carries the film with a transformative performance as Wilde. His work in front of the camera here is enough to make the film memorable.
But he also delivers a screenplay worthy of Wilde himself. It’s an ode to love, beauty, and suffering, as any film about Wilde and his escapades should be.
What’s it about?
Oscar Wilde died in Paris on November 30, 1900, three years after completing a prison term in England on sodomy charges.
“The Happy Prince” follows Wilde through those final, post-prison years. Shunned by “polite society,” he lives hand-to-mouth in a filthy hotel room, dying slowly but still taking pleasure where he can find and afford it.
Perhaps most remarkably, even in those squalid circumstances, he retains his humor, his manners, and his sense of irony.
RELATED: REVIEW: “Colette” ★★★★ and ½
It wasn’t always that way, of course. Years earlier, he was filled with hope that he could right past wrongs and perhaps create again.
He also very much wished to reconcile with his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson), and reunite with his two young sons.
However, Wilde’s own self-destructive tendencies soon derail his lofty plans. He rekindles his relationship with Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan) and soon after begins a new downward spiral.
“Why does one run towards ruin? Why does it hold such a fascination?” he muses at one point in the film. It’s that fascination and its consequences that characterize Wilde’s journey, even near the end.
Love and suffering
“The Happy Prince” draws its title from one of Wilde’s short stories, a parable about love and suffering.
Everett threads the film’s screenplay with prose from that story, with Wilde himself telling the story to others, its implicit wisdom heavy in his delivery.
It’s just one way Everett informs the film with the artist’s voice and obsessions as he understands them. As a result, it lends the film a melancholic tone befitting its subject.
It’s all a part of presenting Wilde as the romantic hero of his own literary story. Brilliant, charismatic, disdainful of societal conventions and invariably punished for his impertinence, he, like the archetype, pursues his passions and obsessions beyond the realm of reason, often hurting others caught in his alluring orbit.
Wilde lived a life of adventure and scandal, all in pursuit of love and beauty as he saw it. “The Happy Prince” embraces that pursuit, as well as its consequences.
Fans of period films, literary adaptations, and Wilde’s works should definitely see “The Happy Prince,” but not just them. Cinephiles, in general, should find much to enjoy here, as well.
Without a doubt, Everett’s work on screen dominates the overall viewing experience. The stellar supporting cast certainly deserves praise, too, as does cinematographer John Conroy, whose inventive use of lighting perfectly captures the visual tone Everett seems to be after here.
Is a rollicking good time at the movies? Of course not, but it does have its moments of wit to offset the melancholia.
Most importantly, it’s a passion project, a labor of love for Everett, who reportedly worked for almost a decade to get it made.
Such projects aren’t for everyone. But for the niche they do fit, they’re often marvelous to behold.
Everett’s work here fits that description.
The Happy Prince
Starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, and Emily Watson. Directed by Rupert Everett.
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use.