The problem with being Oscar: why Rupert Everett struggles in The Happy Prince

A role like this presents a particular challenge for Everett.

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“It’s a dream,” purrs Oscar Wilde, gazing into the camera at the start of The Happy Prince and setting the tone for what will be a clammy, meandering and atmospheric evocation of the final years of his life as recalled from his Parisian deathbed. Rupert Everett, who makes his writing and directing debut with the film, dons the same fat-suit for the lead that he wore on stage in the 2012 production of David Hare’s 1998 play The Judas Kiss – a revival that the actor himself instigated expressly to convince prospective movie financiers that he could cut it as Wilde.

As the film begins, he emerges from a two-year prison sentence for gross indecency, clutching the letter that would later be published as De Profundis, and falls into the company of his devoted friend Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas). But despite Robbie’s affection, and the prospect of a reconciliation between Wilde and his wife Constance (Emily Watson), the gravitational pull of his former lover Bosie (Colin Morgan) is too strong to resist. Wilde is drawn back to him, along with all the opportunities for self-destruction he represents.

A role like this presents a particular challenge for Everett, who is usually too guarded and inhibited a screen performer to risk appearing vulnerable. His finest work has been in fleeting guest-spots (The Madness of King George, My Best Friend’s Wedding) where he is called upon to provide spice rather than sustenance. If his performance as Wilde comes off, it is because as a director he has built the film to compensate for his own shortcomings: it has a soupy headiness, with flashbacks, dreams and stories melting into one another, which reduces the need for it to be any sort of acting tour de force.

The cross-cutting and sound effects can be crude – we probably don’t need to hear a piercing train whistle at the exact moment Bosie removes his shirt to know that he’s bad news. But elsewhere, Everett makes some interesting sound and editing choices in his attempt to suggest Wilde’s feverish mental state. Wrestling with the vagaries of celebrity, he resorts to using his renown as a come-on (“I was famous,” he tells a handsome young flower seller), blundering around in the chasm between who he once was and what he has now become.

Morgan makes a pointed, intimidating Bosie, all sharp angles and bird-like gestures, and Watson has one impressive moment in which she conveys an understanding of Robbie’s place in her husband’s life with a single, well-timed blink. The casting has some symbolic power too. Colin Firth, whose production company helped finance the film, spends most of his scenes as Wilde’s friend Reggie Turner looking concerned from behind a giant moustache, but his history with Everett (they worked together as up-and-comers in the early-1980s stage and film versions of Another Country) introduces a note of reflection that suits the material. It was also inspired of Everett to cast Tom Wilkinson as the priest who administers the last rites. Memories of Wilkinson’s bitter performance in Wilde as the Marquess of Queensberry – Bosie’s father, who was so instrumental in the writer’s downfall – are still piercingly fresh, and suggest that Wilde is being tended to in his final hours by God and the Devil alike.

We are unambiguously in the company of the latter in Hereditary. This horror film about a cursed family arrives promising the scariest two hours of cinema since… well, any of the movies it cribs from: Under the Skin, It Follows, Paperhouse, Rosemary’s Baby. It’s unfit to be mentioned in the same breath as those, but it does feature an arresting opening shot: a slow zoom into the bedroom of a doll’s house, which then dissolves seamlessly into an actual set populated by actors. Hereditary begins promisingly at a funeral where the artist Annie (Toni Collette), daughter of the deceased, gives a speech that doesn’t stint on awkwardness: “Nice to see so many… strange, new faces here. My mother would be suspicious.” Her own daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), scrawls a frenzied portrait of Annie from the pews while a man in the corner grins maniacally, Bob-from-Twin-Peaks-style.

The first-time director Ari Aster is good at planting these seeds of unease (there’s a double decapitation and a nut allergy in the first 30 minutes alone) but he doesn’t know how to harvest the crop. Plot points are conveyed through dream sequences, dodgy dialogue (“What do you mean, ‘desecrated’?”) and shots of people leafing through photo albums and books on folklore. It’s poorly paced, with a making-it-up-as-we-go feel; there’s a difference between slow-burn and merely slow, and Aster hasn’t grasped it yet. Huge demands are placed on Collette as the woman stumbling into her late mother’s bizarre secret life, though she reaches fever pitch far too soon. No wonder Gabriel Byrne, as her husband, looks exasperated. With clues to be found in tiny plastic figurines, haunted drawings and hand-sewn welcome mats, this is an example of handicraft horror, more Etsy than eerie. 

The Happy Prince (15)
dir: Rupert Everett
Hereditary (15)
dir: Ari Aster

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?