When I initially saw that Rupert Everett was making a film about the final days of Oscar Wilde, I was incredibly excited. The actor is incredibly talented and passionate about the project. He writes and directs the film as well as starring in the title role. In addition to his skill, I love Oscar Wilde, his writing and his history. Few depictions in the past have focused on his later years in exile so the content intrigued me. I found the film to be faithful in the focus on Wilde’s relationships and his death, the treatment loving and the acting brilliant in how well it captures Oscar Wilde.
The story is about Wilde’s years after his two years in prison for sodomy and gross indecency over his relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan). Before prison, he was at the height of his fame, a celebrated writer, married to Constance (Emily Watson) with two small boys and well known for his relationships with men. After, he was exiled and scorned by society, Constance estranged from him and unable to see his sons. He is unable to remain in England and with the help of the sole remaining friends he had, Robert Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reginald Turner (Colin Firth), he goes to France.
At first, he is eager for reconciliation with Constance, begging her to forgive him. As his friends return to their lives and Constance, while paying his allowance, continues to stay away, loneliness eats at him. He and Lord Alfred pick up their relationship but both are warned if they continue the relationship, they will be cut off. Eventually, Wilde and he are unable to remain together and Oscar ends his days in a small hotel in Paris.
While Oscar Wilde’s life has been explored in film and book, The Happy Prince captures his later years with an authenticity and historical accuracy that brings a richness and complexity that is rare. Not only are the buildings, clothes, and story line match the history of Wilde’s life but the dialogue and language are also real, lines that can be attributed directly to Oscar Wilde and exposition using his work from The Happy Prince itself as well as other seminal writings both from his plays as well as his other writings. All of these details, along with the raw, honest emotions make this a powerful film.
Another aspect that enhances the complexity are the writing and direction. The writing by Rupert Everett illustrates how difficult Oscar Wilde’s life was after his fall from grace. Skillful use of certain flashbacks tell us of his time in prison and some hints of what torture he experienced. The choice to share the totality of his time abroad shows the viewer how toxic his relationship with Lord Alfred “Boise” was, leading Oscar away from any reconciliation with his family but also shows how much he was cared for by other friends, in particular the devotion of Robert Ross. All of these scenes build to the tragedy of Oscar’s final days, where he ends in pain, in debt, and never being able to see his sons again. The scorn of society for a desire and love he could not turn from or change, intrinsic and real caused his ruin and as stated in the film, when he was no longer beautiful or useful society turned their backs on him, leaving him in pain and destitute. The film beautifully displays each step to this terrible outcome.
None of the realism or writing would work without the performances of the actors. Rupert Everett is dark, emotional, witty, and heart wrenching as Oscar Wilde. His passion for the role shows in the beautiful job he does capturing the essence of Wilde’s pain over the loss of his sons and his loneliness. Every actor adds depth to the story. We see the conflict displayed by Emily Watson as Constance.
Robbie Ross’ love for Oscar is clearly developed by Edwin Thomas’ acting. Colin Firth is equal parts charming and solid as Reggie Turner, showing how well Oscar was cared for in the end. Colin Morgan as Boisie is temperamental, dramatic, his acting able to highlight the best and worst of Lord Alfred.
Where the film detracts from the emotion and the acting is in overuse of certain elements. One of aspects that leads to confusion is the use of time in the film. While the flashbacks later in the movie are integral to understanding Wilde’s time in prison, the beginning of the story jumps back and forth in time from Wilde telling the story of The Happy Prince to his sons, then to the end of his life and back again to when he leaves prison. The back and forth, while aiding the overall story, inhibits the pacing of the movie and could be confusing to viewers not as familiar with Wilde’s life.
The other overused piece are the lines of story, poetry, and dialogue from Wilde’s work. On one hand, the lines enhance the presentation of Wilde’s life and provide insight into his character and his thoughts. On the other hand, it slows the pacing of the movie. It is an overload of exposition and could have used a lighter hand, still giving insight for the viewers and weaving with the action, allowing for faster pacing.
Overall, it is a fitting tribute to Oscar Wilde, giving viewers a taste of his work and his presence, wit and charm while delving into his darkest hours, capturing his raw emotion and his pain at his separation from his wife and confidant Constance as well as his beloved children. It is incredibly poignant to watch the descent of his final days. While some of the jumps in time might be confusing, viewers familiar with Oscar Wilde and his work will appreciate the attention to detail and the rich dialogue alongside the passionate performances. It is beautifully told if you don’t mind slower pacing and appreciate historical realism. As someone who loves Oscar Wilde and his work, I appreciated the complexity and the masterful acting.
Rating 3.5 out of 5
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