Tag Archives: B+

THE HAPPY PRINCE

Producer: Sebastien Delloye, Philipp Kreuzer, and Jeorg Schulze
Director: Rupert Everett
Writer: Rupert Everett
Stars: Rupert Everett, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Benjamin Voisin, Matteo Salamone, Tom Wilkinson, Antonio Spagnuolo, Franca Abategiovanni, John Standing, Kit Lloyd, Beatrice Dalle, Ronald Pickup, Anna Chancellor and Julian Wadham
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B+

Clearly a labor of love for Rupert Everett, who wrote and directed as well as starring in it, “The Happy Prince” is unlike earlier films about Oscar Wilde in that it concentrates on the last years of his life, following his release from prison, rather than his earlier years of celebrity and the 1895 trial on charges of gross indecency that brought his downfall—and two years of heavy labor in prison. Everett offers captions upfront to cover those matters, and occasional flashbacks to them as well, but apart from those his screenplay focuses on the three years of disgrace and exile on the continent between 1897 and 1900, ending with his death in Paris.

Everett gives shape to an episodic treatment in a couple of ways. One is to make Wilde’s titular 1888 short story—about a statue that effectively destroys itself in order to alleviate human suffering (helped in the endeavor by a sparrow that gives up its life in the process)—a running theme, beginning with the author reciting it to his two sons before his conviction and then to Jean and Leon (Benjamin Voison and Matteo Salamone), street children whom he befriends in the French capital. Another is by recurring periodically to what Wilde remembers as the most humiliating experience of his ordeal—a stopover at Clapham Junction during his 1895 transfer from Wandsworth Prison to Reading Jail in 1895—during which he was ridiculed, even spat on, by onlookers.

The major chapters of the plot are determined by the various places on the continent Wilde resides in during his final years. The first is Dieppe, the French coastal town where he is met by his friends, his agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and novelist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and put up in a hotel under the alias Sebastian Melmoth. There he will be feted by a crowd of young poets and badgered by some vacationing British schoolboys before being forced to leave when his identity is revealed.

But the great drama of his stay is internal. He claims a desire to reconcile with his crippled wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their sons. But despite his initial condemnation of his erstwhile lover Alfred Douglas, affectionately known as Bosie (Colin Morgan), Wilde cannot overcome his obsession with the “dear boy,” and when Douglas arrives on the continent, he cajoles Oscar to go off with him to Naples, where they exhaust their meager resources in a life of hedonism with the locals, including handsome waiter Felice (Antonio Spagnuolo).

The relationship is as fraught as ever, however, and Bosie departs for home; Wilde moves on to Paris, where his funds run dry and he lives in penurious squalor, which even Ross and Turner cannot rescue him from. His dalliances with Jean, fueled by absinthe and cocaine when he can afford them, and his affection for young Leon cannot halt his physical and mental disintegration, and inevitably the film reaches his deathbed, portrayed in poignant tones as he comes to terms with his past as his boys—his real sons, via hallucinations, and his surrogate ones, in person—as well as his best friends look on. To lighten the mood, Tom Wilkinson (who played Wilde’s nemesis and Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, in Brian Gilbert’s 1998 biopic starring Stephen Fry) is introduced as Father Dunne, the priest called upon to offer the sacrament of unction prior to his demise; Wilkinson has a fine time in what amounts to a cameo as a clergyman who’s at once personally voluble and serious in his office. The funeral follows, with Bosie—who has treated Oscar contemptuously during a previous Paris visit—showing up to make a scene.

“The Happy Prince” is not just a personal statement by Everett, himself a gay man who ends his film with a caption noting Wilde’s pardon, along with others convicted of similar “crimes,” in 2017, but a tour de force for him as an actor. His Wilde is rueful, conflicted, desperate and ultimately hopeless, and while traversing the gamut of emotions he also demonstrates the wit that made him such a remarkable writer and raconteur. As screenwriter Everett has contrived for himself a raft of good lines, as well as a few flamboyant turns (like a song in a seedy bar), and he obviously relishes delivering them; but he also fills the role with poignancy. It’s a part Everett also seemed destined to play, and he fulfills every expectation one might have had of him doing so. Of course, he also added some speculation to the record of Wilde’s last years, but nothing in the film comes across as implausible, and certainly the dramatic impact is palpable.

Everett has chosen the rest of the cast with care, and all give committed performances, though some of the most distinguished names—Firth and Watson in particular—could have used greater opportunity to fill their characters. Wilkinson makes a major impression with his rather showy cameo, and so do Franca Abategiovanni, as Felice’s hot-tempered mother, and Morgan. He does an extravagantly over-the-top turn as Douglas, whose grotesque sense of aristocratic entitlement makes him a cad it’s impossible not to detest—which, of course, makes Wilde’s inability to break with him all the more baffling, self-destructive and sad.

For a film that must have been made on a fairly limited budget, “The Happy Prince” is beautifully mounted. The locations are lovely; Brian Morris’ production design, along with the costumes by Maurizio Millenotti and Gianni Casalnuovo, are exquisitely detailed; cinematographer John Conroy presents it all in lush, luminous widescreen images; and Nicolas Gaster’s editing integrates the flashbacks nicely into the basic narrative. Gabriel Yared’s sensitive score adds to the effect.

Previous biopics with Peter Finch, Robert Morley and Fry have told the tale of Oscar Wilde’s ignominious fall from grace with varying degrees of success. Now Everett’s finely tuned film provides a deeply felt coda to a story that has become ever more relevant over the course of the hundred-plus years since it happened.

22 JULY

Producer: Scott Rudin, Paul Greengrass, Gregory Goodman and Eli Bush
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Paul Greengrass
Stars:  Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Ola G. Furuseth, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Aglen, Hilde Olausson and Lena Kristin Ellingse
Studio: Netflix

B+

Paul Greengrass, who made the brilliant “United 93” about the “third plane” of 9/11 (as well as the fact-based thrillers “Bloody Sunday” and “Captain Phillips”), brings a similar degree of dramatic urgency to his recreation of another recent mass tragedy. The event in question is the terrorist assault that lone-wolf Anders Behring Breivik undertook on July 22, 2011, setting off a bomb outside the office of Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stolfenberg in Oslo that killed eight people.

That, however, was but the first stage of Breivik’s plan. While authorities concentrated on the explosion, he drove in the guise of a policeman to Utøya Island northwest of Oslo. Armed with automatic weapons, he proceeded to kill sixty-nine people and wound more than a hundred more, most of them youngsters attending a summer camp run by AUF, the youth organization affiliated with Stolfenberg’s Labor Party, before SWAT teams arrived to disarm him.

The first part of Greengrass’ film, based on Åsne Seierstad’s 2015 book “One of Us,” is a recreation of the horrendous acts of Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), captured by the director and his able crew—most notably cinematographer Pål Ulvek Rokseth, production designer Liv Ask and editor William Goldenberg—in the harrowing semi-vérité style familiar from his previous docu-dramas, a style grimly realistic and more restrained than that adopted by Peter Berg for such fact-based action films such as “Deepwater Horizon.” There is naturally a good deal of violence depicted, but Greengrass is never sensationalist in staging it, often showing it indirectly or from a distance.

The graphic exception is his focus on Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a buoyant seventeen-year old who is attending the camp along with his younger brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen). The children of Christin Kristofferson (Maria Bock), a local Labor Party politician running for mayor of their northern hometown, and biologist Sveinn Are Hanssen (Thorbjørn Harr), they run for their lives as Breivik attacks, eventually taking refuge on a ledge overlooking the sea. He finds them, however, and wounds Viljar horribly as Torje escapes.

From this point, “22 July” shifts into the aftermath of the tragedy, dividing into two complementary plot strands. One involves the interrogation and trial of Breivik, who is assigned liberal attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden) to act as defense counsel—a role that the lawyer hardly relishes but accepts out of a sense of duty despite his feelings about his client and the effect on his family. He attempts to construct an insanity plea, but is undercut by public pressure from the families of the victims, and by Breivik’s insistence that he have the opportunity to explain his motives in open court as a call to other like-minded ideologues to take up arms as soldiers in the war he’s begun to cleanse Europe of infectious foreign influences and the multicultural policies the Labor Party represents. His assault on the youth camp, he says, was to purge the next generation of the party’s leadership.

That story thread—which also touches on the grief-wracked Stolfenberg’s efforts to grapple with his government’s failure to prevent the atrocity and Lippestad’s efforts to mount a defense by enlisting Breivik’s hyper-anxious mother (Hilde Olausson) and other like-minded extremists to testify—is juxtaposed with the desperate efforts of emergency-room personnel to save Viljar as his family looks on, and the boy’s torturous rehabilitation—he has been blinded in one eye, has lost several fingers and is left with a severe limp, while inoperable fragments near his spine could shift and kill him. He is also troubled by the fact that his younger brother is keeping his distance, obviously blaming himself for coming away physically unscathed while Viljar acted to protect him from harm.

Viljar struggles not only to regain the will to live, but to steel himself to testify in Breivik’s trial. He’s aided in this by another survivor, Lara Rashid (Seda Witt), whose sister died in the attack and comes to visit the boy in the hospital, becoming a kind of sympathetic confidante as he readies himself reluctantly to face the terrorist in the courtroom. The film leads up to the sorrowful but determined accounts of the July day that Lara and Viljar give, somber testimony that nonetheless represents renewed determination in the face of unspeakable bigotry and horror; and to Breivik’s incarceration in solitary confinement.

Greengrass presents his account of this Norwegian counterpart to America’s 9/11 with a steady gaze that avoids exploitation while honestly depicting both the malignancy behind the terrorist’s actions and the heroic efforts his victims had to muster to overcome the trauma and pain he caused. The film undoubtedly leans toward sentimentality in its treatment of the survivors, but as with his portrayal of the violence early on, Greengrass pulls back before the film descends into melodrama, and with a major assist from an excellent cast—Lie is effectively odious, and Gravli exceptional in his portrait of a shattered young man—he manages to achieve, as with his previous efforts in this vein, a film that is profoundly moving without becoming maudlin.

“22 July” is obviously not an easy picture to watch, but it is a painfully truthful account of how fanaticism can suddenly rupture the placidity of modern life, requiring both reason and resilience to deal with the physical and psychological damage.