‘Last days’ biopic are all plagued by the same problem. If everyone knows the subject of the film is going to die, how do the filmmakers keep the premise interesting? This is something that the makers of The Happy Prince, depicting the final years of Oscar Wilde, never seems to resolve. It is enjoyable to watch, but the lack of real narrative tension means it never lives up to the brilliant writer’s reputation. Forced to build drama when there really is none, The Happy Prince constantly feels like it is focusing on the wrong things.
The problem stems from construction. It was almost inevitable that the film would be structured using flashbacks, but in order to work they have to be deployed in a logical sense. Here, we flit between parts of Wilde’s life with very little connection between them. The braver approach, perhaps, would have been to stage it more like an art film — such as Stanley Tucci’s wonderful and underrated Paris-set film Last Portrait, about the painter Alberto Giacometti — than merely a tick-the-boxes biopic. All things told, The Happy Prince does not have a central thesis it wants to tell about Wilde, instead favouring over-blown scenes to show off Everett’s role of a lifetime. With these types of stories, you have to tell the beginning somewhere, so Everett starts (after a protracted prologue) with Wilde’s exile to France, where he tries to begin anew. He is joined on his adventure by his best friend Robbie Ross (Edwin Turner), lover Alfred Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan), and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). The story then bobbles from place to place, scenario to scenario, sadly failing to build up any steam.
The role of Oscar Wilde is a dream for Rupert Everett, a man who has been a proud homosexual actor for most of his career. Oscar Wilde, involved in one of the highest profile cases around the turn of the century, paved the way for performers like him, and in portraying him, Rupert Everett eagerly repays the debt. For the most part, he does a very good job of playing a larger-than-life man who was made to pay dearly just for the crime of being himself. Its a shame they didn’t create a film where he is allowed to really sink into the role of the playwright, instead choosing to create a convoluted series of scenarios for him to pass through, all the more obscured by obtuse editing and endless voiceover. It could have been the role of Everett’s career; instead it is merely a fine addition to his glittering filmography.
While it feels like an important movie due to the way it uses Wilde as a means to show the persecution homosexuals lived under during this time, The Happy Prince doesn’t feel hard-hitting enough in its insights, using only a few post-scriptum cards to provide some wider context. Slapping on these after-the-film-ends facts is a sure way of trying to make the movie feel more important, but when this isn’t reflected in the story itself, it comes off as quite trite. It tries to be too much at times, but without doing the necessary groundwork to make these effects come off.
The Happy Prince is a BBC production so it is handsomely mounted, with exquisite production design bringing 1900s France and Italy to life, but it really doesn’t have enough edge to really qualify as an affecting film. The screenplay is full of lyrical turns of phrase, flowery prose, and delicate words, but it isn’t full of any essential lines to make it stick in the emotional craw. The supporting cast are all passable — Tom Wilkinson in particular steals the show as the priest giving the last rites — but their characters aren’t really developed on their own, instead only seen in relation to Wilde. A lot of these players could have been trimmed or better streamlined, and on the whole The Happy Prince is a bit of a sprawling mess. Everett will be happy to have brought his passion project to the big screen, and he is perfect for the starring role. Behind the camera — not so much.