The Happy Prince review: “a moody, bustling portrayal of a Victorian icon”

Oscar Wilde's life on the Continent after prison is a given labour-of-love treatment by director and star Rupert Everett

Lionsgate; JA

★★★

Rupert Everett has worked for a good ten years to bring this portrait of his hero, Oscar Wilde, to the screen. Not only that, he also makes his debut as writer/director and takes the central role of the Victorian cultural icon brought low by charges of gross indecency with men.

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Previously an absolute dab hand with Wilde’s glittering dialogue in film adaptations of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, Everett might seem just the man to incarnate the author himself on celluloid, particularly after earning strong reviews for playing Wilde on the London stage in David Hare’s biographical study The Judas Kiss. There’s added value, too, in the specific approach favoured by Everett’s script, which focuses on the less-explored period of Wilde’s life, when he fled to the Continent after his release from Reading jail – never again to set foot in England or Ireland before his death at 46.

As it is, Everett delivers a moody, bustling portrayal of a man coming to terms with the vicissitudes of his fate, focusing less on the whys and wherefores of his descent from gilded literary celebrity to reviled outcast, and more on the aftermath. We see him pondering his mortality, dealing with the hardscrabble daily realities of exile and bearing the weight of regret – the suggestion being that like the diamond-encrusted statue in Wilde’s eponymous short story, he’s somehow been undone by the generosity of his affections.

With flashbacks to his London fame and previous loving family life threaded through the course of his reduced circumstances, Everett’s take on the biopic is even ambitious enough to accommodate an ongoing romantic triangle as well. Hence, flighty aristo Bosie (the object of affection who sparked the court proceedings) continues to cast a toxic spell thanks to Colin Morgan’s suitably brittle performance, while the sincere feelings of Wilde’s faithful literary executor Robbie Ross (an effective Edwin Thomas) go unreturned.

The film’s rather mazy progress doesn’t quite satisfy, however. It’s particularly strong on the horrifying homophobic prejudice which proliferated during Wilde’s downfall – notably in the awful sight of Wilde the convict being spat at on a station platform while on the way to jail – yet, somehow, we never quite feel Oscar’s pain with the intensity that a really great film could have exposed.

As a director, Everett perhaps lacks the experience to know when to settle long enough on something to allow the story’s true emotional heft to come out. Here, the restless camera seems too busy poring over myriad detail to deliver the bigger picture on Wilde’s tragedy. Everett’s investment in the material and his knowledge of the milieu is evident throughout, fascinating at times, yet the film also leaves the audience unsure what the main takeaway should be – Oscar the gay martyr or Oscar the self-destructive cynic?

Everett would surely maintain that Wilde’s a hugely complex character, who refuses to be reduced to one thing or the other, and though at times he seems to be struggling through the padding required to bulk up for the part, ultimately his sheer connection with this glorious, tragic figure carries the day. A flawed, yet worthwhile and deeply felt rendering of an artist at the very end of his tether.

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Released in cinemas on Friday 15 June