Captivating performances, deft dialogue and evocative scenery distinguish “The Happy Prince” as a carefully cultivated biopic of 19th-century Irish author Oscar Wilde that may be unapproachable for those unfamiliar with Oscar.
Exploring the legendary author’s slow death in his time as a social pariah, Rupert Everett, who wrote, directed and starred as Oscar in the film, pulls no punches in exploring the inherent tragedy of Oscar’s situation. Oscar’s life after being imprisoned on charges of sodomy and gross indecency is characterized by outrageous parties, increasing health concerns and broken relationships. The film skillfully pulls the audience into the emotional whirlwind of its characters by evoking an atmosphere of loneliness that is only briefly punctuated by brief moments of joy and love.
Nevertheless, the film’s bleakness feels overindulgent: It just sits in its own sense of hopelessness rather than capitalizing on these feelings.
Everett’s script brilliantly captures Oscar’s distinct voice by including entries from Oscar’s expansive catalogue of witty sayings. Yet it is Everett’s original dialogue that truly shows his deep and thorough understanding of Oscar’s writing. His script truly reveals his reverence for Oscar’s words, beautifully capturing his individual voice.
John Conroy’s cinematography effectively employs the landscape and architecture of each location to set the scene. Conroy’s technique in capturing the lonely plains of Dieppe, France; the romantic, run-down castle in Naples, Italy; and the warm garden in the English countryside transports the viewers both physically and emotionally into the worlds of the characters. Conroy occasionally over-manipulates the color saturation to indicate the intended mood of a scene, reminiscent of Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” — a tactic that can be distracting even when not heavy-handed.
The main cast members elegantly complement one another, believably inhabiting the complicated and lived-in relationships between old friends, lovers and rivals. Everett specifically focuses on the dichotomy between Oscar’s two main love interests: Robbie Ross, played by Edwin Thomas, and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, played by Colin Morgan.
Robbie, whose unconditional and unrequited love renders him a tragic character, serves as a devoted friend to Oscar. Thomas shines in his debut major role, easily keeping up with the storied cast. Each frame captures his yearning, both for Oscar’s affection and to protect him as best as he can.
Bosie and Oscar share a tempestuous and dramatic relationship, held together by a magnetic and seemingly inescapable pull. Morgan excellently marches the thin line between entrancing and repelling. Morgan dexterously navigates the change from the youth, exuberance and charm that ultimately give way to his selfishness and temperamental outbursts.
The chemistry between Bosie and Oscar is passionate and volatile. While viewers can easily see how toxic the relationship is, they can also clearly understand what draws the two flawed individuals together. The attraction communicated by Morgan and Everett between Bosie and Oscar is incessantly palpable, making their inevitable reunion and ultimate separation all the more heartbreaking.
However, Everett’s transformation to Oscar is the true standout. Outstanding makeup and prosthetics by Gerd Zeiss gives Everett an uncanny physical resemblance to the literary icon as he was dying. However, the physical transformation merely serves to supplement Everett’s exceptional performance.
Everett fully captures Oscar’s descent into ruin. Oscar is a decidedly tragic figure, unable to escape society’s punishment after his prison term. However, unlike many other tragic martyrs in film,
Everett’s Oscar does not fall into the trap of feigning perfection to create the ideal victim around which to support a narrative.
Rather than portraying his protagonist as heroic or overly sympathetic, Everett starkly shows Oscar’s flaws. By showing Oscar in all his selfishness and immaturity, Everett demystifies and deglamorizes a figure often looked at through rose-tinted glasses. Some viewers may appreciate this deep exploration into an often revered figure, while others may find the heavily flawed protagonist too alienating.
Fans of Oscar will love this carefully crafted passion project, though if one is not well-versed in Oscar’s life, the narrative may be confusing and difficult to follow. The care and love that Everett has shown toward “The Happy Prince” can be seen in the entirety of his script, direction, and performance.