Film Review: The Happy Prince

Lavishly produced yet intimate, this compelling portrait of wit Oscar Wilde during his final, tragic decade gives debuting director and writer/star Rupert Everett a trifecta career high.
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Late 19th-century Irish-British literary sensation and bon vivant Oscar Wilde was Victorian England’s most famous victim of anti-homosexual laws. The Happy Prince focuses not on his grand years, but on his terrible decade of decline, when his sentence for “gross indecency” meant two years of incarceration and hard labor. But as depicted here, it was Wilde’s own often-foolish self-indulgence and tendency to self-destruct that helped mightily in the story of his downfall.

Rupert Everett (Dance with a Stranger, The Madness of King George, My Best Friend’s Wedding) brings all this alive to stunning, awards-worthy effect as auteurworking both sides of the camera. In his hands, The Happy Prince, far from the depressing journey it could have been, becomes a visually stunning, riveting foray into a great mind, unforgettable personality and iconic victim of both shameful intolerance and his own nature. Art-house audiences ever hungry for beautifully packaged, authentic characters and well-observed turn-of-the-century production design get it here.

As a giant of literary history, Wilde is known for his poetry, children’s stories (including “The Happy Prince,” which Everett’s Wilde reads here at appropriate intervals), plays (The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband), a classic novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and “De Profundis,” his famous long letter written while incarcerated.

Before his French exile, he was also a much-sought-after lecturer who even toured America (the lighter 1997 Wilde, starring Stephen Fry, includes this episode). At his peak, Wilde was the sensation of London and beyond, as brief flashbacks convey. Later, as scandal unfolds, we see an impoverished Wilde discreetly begging the elegant upper-class Mrs. Arbuthnott (Anna Chancellor) for money after a chance street encounter. Humiliation quickly follows, foreshadowing the harder times to come.

The story’s chronology is somewhat scattershot, but the timeline is arranged poetically. It never confuses the pre-1890 good days with the years of growing hardship that follow. The late ’90s finds Wilde arriving in northern France under a pseudonym to begin a new life away from the scorn of his native country. He’s fluent in French (and Italian, as Everett himself is), loves the country and is optimistic about his future there. “I’m really ready to return to life,” he tells his devoted literary executor and former lover Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), on hand in France to greet and help settle him in. Ross still carries a torch for Wilde, and his rivals for Wilde’s favor are soon to arrive.

Managing on a small allowance from estranged wife Constance (Oscar nominee Emily Watson), Wilde settles into a lovely seaside hotel in Normandy. Another dear but more cautious friend, Reggie Turner (Colin Firth), arrives, and all goes well until Wilde overspends with too many lavish meals and too much absinthe and champagne. But it’s a letter from his younger former lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (a quite pretty Colin Morgan) that precipitates big problems. First Wilde impressively rips it up in front of his friends; they know how toxic the relationship was. Bosie’s aristocratic father, outraged at the relationship, slandered Wilde, who foolishly sued the man. It backfired, sending Wilde, with accusations of “indecent behavior,” to trial, conviction, two years’ imprisonment, near-poverty and total disgrace. Hence, his eventual flight to France.

But Wilde secretly pieces Bosie’s letter back together and answers it. Soon Bosie joins him and the relationship is rekindled. Wilde needs no persuading when the foppish, spoiled Bosie proposes they run away to Naples. When Constance learns her husband has reconnected with Bosie, she cuts off his allowance.

No matter. Bosie has his, and the two go off to Naples, where they indulge themselves. (An all-boy Christmas Party arranged by a waiter they pick up is a dissolute highlight.) Word gets back to Bosie’s family; his funds are cut off as long as he stays away from home. He and Wilde argue, Bosie leaves, and Wilde returns to Paris in worse shape than ever.

Much else will happen. There are occasional Wildean literary refereces, notably his inebriated recitation of his famed quote “each man kills the thing he loves.”

Until illness sets in—eventually leading to his death at 46—Wilde carries on courageously but irresponsibly at his favorite Paris hangout, the working-class Café Concert (French star Béatrice Dalle plays the manager). Other figures in his life in exile include the young flower peddler Jean (Benjamin Voisin), an early Wilde trick, and Father Dunne (Tom Wilkinson, who played Douglas’ vengeful father in Wilde), an acquaintance arising from Wilde’s sort-of conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Filmed across France, Belgium, Italy and Germany, The Happy Prince is a gloriously recreated canvas of mid-Belle Époque locations.