Back in my review for Rampage I spoke a little about the concept of passion projects, and how far actors would go to try and get them made. And in most cases the actor in question would merely take on the lead acting role. However, on occasion, there are individuals that are so dedicated to their passion projects that they willingly take on multiple positions.
Rupert Everett is one of those dedicated men. The pressure put on him during production must have been monstrous, but Everett’s passion for Oscar Wilde and his life story is apparently unparalleled. What else could explain his decision to, not only perform the lead of The Happy Prince, but to also make this film his writing and directorial debut?
Book-ended by a mournful reciting of lines from the short story upon which this film borrows its title, The Happy Prince shepherds us on a journey that begins shortly after Oscar Wilde’s (Rupert Everett) release from prison in 1897. With the world now fully aware of his homosexual activity, he is shunned by most of those that he used to call friends. The only individuals still willing to associate with him are his literary manager, Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and fellow writer Reggie Turner (Colin Firth).
At first Wilde feels that the winds of fortune are behind him, with plenty of writing opportunities ahead, and a chance to reunite with his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson) and their two sons. But the siren call of his ex-lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan), is too much for him to steer clear of, leading to much displeasure from those around him, and the beginnings of Wilde’s ultimate downfall.
Back when Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was released in 2012, there was almost universal acclaim for Daniel Day Lewis’ interpretation of the 16th President of the United States. But there was also an acknowledgment (and one which I shared) that it was impossible to truly know how Lincoln moved or sounded in real life, as all our information about the great man comes from writings or portraits. Regardless to many (again, myself included) Lewis’ performance nonetheless “felt” accurate.
The exact same can be said about Everett in his interpretation of the 19th century poet and playwright. More so than other screen greats that have taken on the role, like Peter Finch or Stephen Fry, Everett is absolutely mesmerising. With the help of facial prosthetics (which rival some of the fine work done on Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour), Everett plummets into the dark depths of emotion, the humanity of his Wilde always on a knife edge. To say that this is a depressing film would rank highly on life’s numerous understatements, but there’s a drive in Everett’s portrayal that still manages to bring out a beauty within. It will be deeply surprising if Everett doesn’t get a BAFTA nomination next year.
That same strength in Everett’s acting is also apparent in the film’s production design (by Brian Morris) and its cinematography (by John Conroy). The dark and dingy aspects of both fields end up being an effective reflection of Wilde’s mindset as he drinks and fornicates his way through Western Europe.
That said, the editing does leave questions. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to how certain scenes are slotted into the overall plot. Time periods end up being difficult to discern from one another. And on occasion, the transition from one scene to another only introduces confusion, especially when trying to follow the wordings of The Happy Prince book, as recited by Everett periodically throughout the film.
I’m sure by now you may also be puzzled by the actual title of this review. To clear things up: roughly 60% of this movie’s dialogue is in English, while the remainder is a mixture of French and Italian. That in itself is not unusual as there are many multi-language films out there. But for some baffling reason, the 40% that is not in English is not subtitled. At first I assumed this was a problem with the print. However Odeon (the cinema chain where I saw the film) claim that the film is not meant to be subtitled, while distributors Lionsgate UK haven’t replied to my inquiry.
In light of the fact that no one is willing to take responsibility, I can only review the film that Odeon/Lionsgate UK have chosen to release. And it’s disappointing to say that nearly 40% of the movie is almost impenetrable, with only context clues and actor movements giving any hint as to what is happening in these scenes.
With some stunning performances and behind-the-scenes work, this is a movie that could have been a defining biopic for Oscar Wilde in the vein of Ray or Amadeus; as well as an award-winning role for Everett himself. But with a surprising lack of foresight for its non-trilingual viewers, the film’s lack of subtitles lets down the film immeasurably.