The Happy Prince: Intentions, by David Bax
To call Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince a vanity project would be both obvious and an understatement. It’s not just that he’s used his long fought for directorial debut to give himself the role he feels he was meant to play. It’s that Everett has shaped his imagination and portrayal of Oscar Wilde entirely around his own ego. He uses the tragic final chapters of the great writer’s life to air his every grievance and fend off every perceived sling and arrow he feels he’s endured.
With the exception of some flashbacks, The Happy Prince takes place after Wilde has served his prison sentence for gross indecency. Britain no longer being welcome to him, he bums around the continent, living in hovels or leeching off the allowance of his lover, Lord Alfred Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan), or the help of his friends like Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). It’s implied that Wilde could make some money if only he began writing again but he either can’t or won’t; his writer’s block is a tantalizing character nugget which The Happy Prince leaves completely untouched.
Everett’s only real interest is in the disloyalty he discerns on the part of Wilde’s former audience and backers. The injustice of sending someone to prison for homosexuality is secondary to the fact the Wilde had fans who loved him and then they stopped. Somewhere in there lies a compellingly tragic tale but Everett’s tone is so unrelentingly vengeful that we soon start to wonder whence all this bitterness comes. Does he feel similarly abandoned? And by whom? The Happy Prince would be a juicy look at Everett’s own ego if it weren’t so cringe-inducing.
Exacerbating the movie’s qualities as an irritant is Everett’s falling prey to so many of the worst habits of first time directors, especially those who are established actors. From wide-angled close-ups to blinding lens flares, he can’t seem to stop calling attention to the cinematic apparatus, as if by being as showy as possible, he’s saying, “Look, everybody, I’m directing!” He also abuses match cuts in transitioning to flashbacks, substituting cleverness for style just like another actor-turned-director, Danny DeVito, did in Hoffa.
What’s particularly crushing is the realization that, in a better film, Everett may in fact be the perfect actor to portray Wilde (he’s done so previously on stage). He snakes his tongue around the words in a way that transfixes and the low but alert timbre of his voice is intoxicating.
Part of the problem, though, is that Everett presents us with a Wilde who never has a moment without poetry. Sure, there’s his famous, supposed last words about the wallpaper in the room where he was dying—a variation of which appears here—but The Happy Prince is too reflexively aggrandizing of its subject to imagine him ever doing anything other than crafting bon mots and suffering deeply at the hands of a cruel, uncaring public. Everett tips the movie over into ridiculousness when he starts making barely veiled allusions to Wilde as a Christ-like figure. I don’t know if it’s hilarious or unnerving to think that Everett must think of himself that way too.