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Non-Review Review: The Happy Prince

“I am my own Judas,” explains Oscar Wilde around the midway point of The Happy Prince.

Just in case the audience doesn’t get the point, The Happy Prince is saturated with religious iconography and constant reminders of how Oscar Wilde was his own worst enemy. At one early point, Wilde confronts a group of homophobes in a church. At another, Wilde reflects on the local church that he visits for solace and how it reminds him what it is to suffer. Towards the end of the film, a priest is summoned to deliver the last rites, the splashing of holy water juxtaposed with the spit and venom of a mob in flashback.

Wilde at heart.

The Happy Prince is not an especially subtle or nuanced film, which is somewhat ironic for a biography about the life and times of one of the greatest witticists in history. Wilde was one of the most eloquent writers in the English language, as much in his personal correspondence as in any of the plays or stories that he wrote. As such, there is something strange in the bluntness of The Happy Prince, perhaps most transparently in the way that the film bends over backwards to construct a portrait of the writer’s final days that conforms to the eponymous story.

The Happy Prince is a story about a fascinating subject with a compelling central performance, but constructed in such a clumsy manner that the performance of Everett the actor cannot anchor the film of Everett the director.

It could use some fine tuning…

The Happy Prince is very much a passion project for actor, director and writer Rupert Everett. Everett is a man who has a long-standing fascination with Oscar Wilde. One of his most memorable screen performances is playing the lead role in Oliver Parker’s adaptation An Ideal Husband. Off screen, Everett enjoyed a long tenure as Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss, including a stint in Dublin. In some ways, The Happy Prince could be seen as a sequel to The Judas Kiss, picking up where the first act of the play left off and working around the details of the second act.

Everett is undoubtedly committed to Wilde. His performance as the writer is the best thing about the film, suggesting a compelling pathos and tragedy to one of the defining figures in Anglo-Irish literature. As played by Everett, Wilde is the protagonist of a grand tragedy. He is a man trapped by his own self-destructive impulses, having had the bad luck to watch his virtues transformed into vices. The energy and the impulsiveness that had made Wilde such a darling of the literary scene render him an outcast and exile only a few years later.

“I’m too sexy” by Right Said Alfred.

“Why do we run towards ruin?” Wilde asks at one point in the film, and it’s a question central to both epic tragedy and intimate drama. The Happy Prince repeatedly stresses that Wilde has the potential to liberate himself from his situation, to escape ignominy and humiliation, if he can simply step outside of himself and assess his situation in a cold and rational manner. Wilde refuses to do that. “That chapter of my life is over,” he asserts, tearing up a letter from the young lover who destroyed his life. Later that evening, he desperately reassembles it.

Everett assembles the story of The Happy Prince in a similar manner, with the opening scenes moving in a decidedly non-linear manner both backwards and forwards in time; these scenes establish a mood and a tone, but they lack a sense of rhythm and structure. It makes sense to focus on Wilde’s final few days before jumping back, but the film lacks focus. The film travels to his imprisonment and his return, to a chance encounter with a kind audience member, to a late night of debauchery, all while flashing quickly to life before the trial.

Well, it is very important to be earnest.

The film settles quickly into a more conventional rhythm, following Wilde’s time in France and his reconnection with Lord Alfred “Boosie” Douglas through to his sad and lonely death. However, so much energy is expended in those opening scenes that these extended sequences struggle to establish momentum or purpose. The film initially seems structured on thematic lines, jumping eagerly back and forth along particular threads as if offering snapshots of a single image. It then settles into a much more earnest mode, which doesn’t really work.

Part of the issue is Everett’s script. The Happy Prince is only Everett’s second on-screen writing credit following the documentary miniseries Love for Sale with Rupert Everett. Everett the writer seems not to trust Everett the director, as if wary of his own ability to convey information in a visual manner. There is a lot of clumsy and unnecessary exposition, which is often repeated at length. This is true of the dynamics as much as the historical context; the characters are constantly restating their relationships to one another, who loves whom and who is incapable of loving whom.

“Since we’re discussing it, I also have some ideas about how we should follow them. Menacingly? Ominously?”

This is also an issue on a simple nuts-and-bolts level. At one point, Wilde is attacked by a bunch of British homophobes on holiday in France. He is convinced to walk away. Everett cuts to the homophobes in the cafe. “Let’s follow them,” the leader suggests, before the group commences following Wilde. It is a beat that could be articulated without exposition. Similarly, the gang pick up sticks lying in an alleyway to menace their targets. “Look,” one industrious member observes, “sticks!” The implication is that the audience might not get that from the visual.

Everett also struggles as a director, which makes sense given that The Happy Prince is his directorial debut. Everett makes a choice to shoot a lot of the film with handheld cameras and to edit the movie with a lot quick cuts. This works rather well for moments intended as claustrophobic, such as when Wilde is panicking or about to make the worst choice. However, the impact of these moments is lost because every shot has that same shaky and intimate feeling.

Above his station.

Still, there are some effective moments and choices. There is something very clever in Everett’s repeated presentation of Wilde as a character in motion, without a fixed abode. Many of the film’s more engaging scenes take place in train stations and ports, hotels and rental accommodation. There is a clear sense of Wilde as a man who is transient. In its own way, this plays into the film’s repeated emphasis on churches, which seem to serve as way stations on a more metaphorical journey for the lead character.

The Happy Prince is an interesting story with a strong central performance. Unfortunately, it never coheres into a satisfying film.

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One Response

  1. This looks interesting. The Happy Prince is my favorite story of Oscar Wilde and I’m a sucker for poorly made biopics. One the list this goes!

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