The Happy Prince suffers the familiar strains of the modern biopic, charting the humiliating downfall of Oscar Wilde with structurally scattered and emotionally limited effect. Obviously a project of great importance to Rupert Everett, as the actor wrote and directed the film in addition to starring as the notorious writer, the film is still notably passionate despite its haphazard expediency. What we ultimately get is affectionate portraiture shoved into a soggy package that often mistakes its ping ponging construction for insightful texture.
Rather than the old standard of “greatest hits” biopic storytelling, The Happy Prince is more interested in Wilde’s greatest downfalls. The film volleys in time after Wilde’s two-year imprisonment and ostracizing from polite society for one of his homosexual trysts. Following his emotional and financial destitution, Everett focuses largely on the failed love affair between Bosie Douglas and Wilde’s mounting psychosis from the illness that would eventually kill him.
With brief glimpses into Wilde’s heyday, the writer is contextualized solely through tragedy and defined largely by the creative impotency that resulted from being spit out from society. The sharpest flashes come in the laughing faces of his still cruelly rapt audience. Their response are not all too different from the gangs that later laugh as they abuse him, the veneer of acceptance only in Wilde’s favor when he can remain part of respectable society by being himself the spectacle. His greatest tragedy, the film half-proposes, is when his vanity allowed him to confuse the crowd’s delight to be a fully welcoming one.
But beyond the fleeting precise observations, the film falls mostly into dull biopic mechanics. And doubly misguided, the film charts Wilde’s many humiliations on the way to the grave without illuminating him beyond his compulsive need for affection and obsession with thorny beauties. Though we’re seeing the less discussed parts of his life, the film can’t escape our basic, more cliched understandings of Oscar Wilde, despite the zeal and clear passion for the subject in Everett’s performance. It’s the historical figure quite as we’ve reductively discussed him, just with more tragic set dressing.
With a sizeable cast servicing a film that seldom invests in their skills, including Emily Watson as Wilde’s suffering wife Constance and Colin Firth as walking mustache Reggie Turner, the film looks and breathes like many called-in favors. Few of which come to fruition in service of an illuminating or unique take of a prominent queer figure – it’s mostly another story of gay life squandered by social stricture, more depressingly observed for its passivity and dated sense of wallowing. The Happy Prince has its heart in the right place and its hands tied behind its back.