As far as passion project biopics go, it’s hard to think of a better fit of actor/director and subject matter than Rupert Everett and Oscar Wilde. A ‘90s superstar who was even once pegged as the new Bond, the openly gay Everett found his career stymied by the homophobic studio system after coming out, lending a meta layer of pathos to The Happy Prince. His take on the last few months before Wilde (played by Everett) died, the film explores how Wilde’s disgrace and imprisonment after being convicted of homosexuality shortened the now-immortal writer’s life. As director, star, and writer, this is 100% Everett’s show, but though he truly excels on the performance side, his behind the camera work is less remarkable.
Set mainly in Paris, The Happy Prince shifts through time constantly. Everett doesn’t exactly put a plot in anywhere, his script instead interested in Wilde and his shifting relationships as he approached his final hour. It’s a tightly focused character study, with supporting players who flit in and out as we bear witness to Wilde’s ever shifting financial misfortune and health. Most notable of these backing characters are Wilde’s loyal and consistent, but unexciting literary agent and former lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), and his polar opposite, mercurial playboy Bosie Douglas (Colin Morgan).
If you expect a Wilde biopic to be full of dazzling wit and wry humour, you’re in for a shock with The Happy Prince. It’s a dark, multilingual, and sombre look at the end of life that spares few grisly details as Wilde’s illnesses consume him. Unforgiving close-ups show him clenched in pain and brief moments of madness, and as we edge closer to his deathbed, his complexion becomes genuinely distressing. Incredible prosthetic work transforms Everett, and the physical grotesquery makes an engaging counterpoint to the elegant, beautifully shot European scenery.
Everett gives a mighty performance here, the powerhouse conclusion of a career that has frequently involved Wilde, whether playing the man himself on stage or starring in adaptations of his plays. He’s utterly compelling, to the point where even Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson in talismanic roles are overshadowed. Yet, beyond this portrayal, there’s not quite enough to The Happy Prince. There’s a lack of truly powerful moments in what is a roughly drawn and sometimes choppily paced story. Though the visuals are for the most part impressive, Everett has a tendency towards dream sequences that are incongruously surreal or epic, and even offputtingly sentimental come the finale.
If you’re looking for a full-bore, committed performance from a fine actor in a role he clearly deeply empathises with, then The Happy Prince should more than satisfy, especially if you’re a fan of either Everett or Wilde. However, in focusing so much of its energy on its leading man, it leaves little room for much else – one obvious case being the woeful underserving of Emily Watson as Wilde’s wife Constance – and doesn’t rise above its status as an impressively performed but dramatically slight biopic.