‘The Happy Prince’ is screening at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor through early December.
By Andrew Warrick
Photos by Sony Pictures Classics
“The Happy Prince” depicts the end of Oscar Wilde’s life — when the “Picture of Dorian Gray” author was cast out from British society due to his sexuality. The Wilde shown in this film isn’t the witty, upper-class dandy he’s been immortalized as. He’s exiled in Paris, practically all out of money and fills his days with trips to dingy bars and brothels. His days of fame are shown in brief flashes, as if to represent how distanced Oscar is from them. Even in memory, his success barely exists.
Rupert Everett, also the film’s writer and director, plays Oscar Wilde in a near-perfect performance imbued with a brilliant blend of comedy and tragedy. He does justice to the horrifically persecuted figure that has since become a cultural icon. Everett directs just as successfully, using cinematic techniques rarely employed in period pieces. This is evident from the very beginning. “The Happy Prince” opens with a tracking shot to a window of the London skyline. It’s as if the viewer were standing in Oscar’s apartment.
A highlight of Everett’s technique is his use of close up, handheld shots that range from being intimate, to arrestingly manic. Because of Everett’s immersive direction, the viewer is thrust, sometimes disorientingly so, into Oscar’s spiraling life. With camera techniques that wouldn’t be out of place in a war film, the viewer isn’t given the distance that most period biopics supply. When Everett does pull back, though, he gives the viewer lush, beautifully designed views into late 19th century Europe, such as a Paris street filled with fog or water lapping against the white sand of a Naples beach. This movie has some of the year’s most beautiful shots, period.
There is not a bad performance in this film, almost to a fault. It moves so quickly through Wilde’s life that fascinating characters, like Colin Firth’s Reggie, come and go frequently, and rarely stay long enough for a satisfying exploration. There is also very little exposition, so viewers are left to themselves to try and sort through the personal histories, and conflicts, of the characters. A prime example of this is Robbie, perhaps the one closest to Wilde, who is given no set up for his vital role in the film.
The character that the story does the least justice to is Wilde’s wife, who is never given enough screen time to seem anything but an emotional wreck. We’re told to believe that Oscar and his wife once loved one another, but we only see them estranged. Though Wilde’s wife is ripe with potential for emotional conflict, the movie skirts over her and makes the character seem one-dimensional. She’s defined by her connection to Oscar and little else.
And since Oscar’s story begins in media res, and avoids overt exposition, anyone without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Wilde’s life will be lost from the start. The average viewer will be left confused until the film’s flashbacks fill in the gaps, albeit in an uneven, patchwork manner. The flashbacks are spread throughout in varying lengths and range from a few seconds to almost half an hour. This confused structure does occasionally make it difficult to follow, as one is left to determine what time in Wilde’s life they are seeing. Thus it is difficult to track Wilde’s growth as a person through the narrative.
This would have been less of an issue had the film focused more on his life of fame. Wilde went from being an idol to a pariah, and the movie rests on this transformation. Yet it does not directly cover this instrumental aspect of his life. Without it, viewer are not as sympathetic to Wilde’s plight, as the film, and Everett’s great performance, asks them to be.
There are other pivotal moments that the movie does not explain, and the viewer is left with the dialogue of the characters to learn important plot points. Everett’s performance is also hindered by melodramatic voiceovers and dream sequences that undercut the character’s extreme complexity.
Yet regardless of the movie’s structural issues, it is held together by its immense craft, both in front of and behind the camera. Wilde’s story leaps from the pages of history and becomes an incredibly emotional and immersive experience. The audience is held by the explosive dialogue, notwithstanding the centuries away setting, though there are times with the 19th century beauty is given its appropriate focus.
“The Happy Prince” will be remembered for its wonderful characters and beautiful cinematography, though the viewer will be left foggy on the facts of Wilde’s life. Nevertheless, the film achieves what it set out to do. The viewer can’t help but be struck by the injustice in Wilde’s story, and see both how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.
“The Happy Prince”
603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor
Showing through at least Dec. 6 (Will likely play longer)
Andrew Warrick is a student at the University of Michigan. He is majoring in creative writing and history, and is a part of the Residential College. He also leads the RC’s Creative Writing Forum. When not watching movies, he loves hanging out with friends, especially in the spectacular Ann Arbor, becoming addicted to novels, and listening to Bowie records. Some of his favorite movies are “Cloud Atlas,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Alien.”