“Have you been playing with the French?”
The 3 hour long BBC television programme, The Lost Prince is the story of Prince John, son of and King George V (Tom Hollander) and Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson). The film begins in 1908 and covers approximately the next ten years of John’s life against the backdrop of various events in British history. John’s story is tragic, but the film succeeds so very well because director, Stephen Poliakoff skillfully weaves John’s tragic story against other tragedies–the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, WWI, and the murder of the Russian royal family. Fans of British costume dramas will be entranced by The Lost Prince. The elegant sets are stunningly beautiful, the acting is superb, and the story of The Lost Prince is haunting.
John is a small child just beginning to enter society when his epileptic fits and his decidedly peculiar behaviour begin to be a cause for embarrassment for his royal parents. Epilepsy had no treatment at this time and it carried a horrible social stigma. The royal family led very public lives, and the family tries shielding John from the eyes of the servants and visitors, but when faced with gossip, Prince John is banished from the palace and subsequently shuffled to several country homes far from the prying eyes of the public. Under the care of his loyal and loving nurse, Lalla (Gina McKee), John is promptly ignored and forgotten.
It’s obvious that it is a horrible thing to shove one’s child off away from home due to a medical condition (and we never know how much John’s behaviour is due to social ostracism), but the decision to banish John is also based on the parents’ submission to their roles. When WWI rages, it becomes perfectly clear that the royal family have worries of their own. Being a member of the royal family comes with a price–even John’s brother, George is shuffled off to various inhumane treatments at a Naval Academy. John’s story is told with grace, and with no blame, and so it’s a tale of human foibles and imperfect decisions made in an imperfect world. The film also dallies with the idea that John’s parents are more than a bit peculiar. King George V has a tendency to explode when it’s inappropriate, and Queen Mary is obsessive. Thanks to their royal station, it’s possible to apply the word “idiosyncratic” to the King and Queen–nonetheless, there’s an implied idea that some behaviours are labeled ‘unusual’ and some may be labeled ‘abnormal’ but is there really so much difference?
There are several social occasions within the film when it is clear that the royal houses are “united” by familial ties. It is as if there’s an unspoken agreement made by the human race to let this one large, extended family rule, but the assassination of the Archduke alters that perception and heralds the beginning of great change for members of various royal families–in particular, the Romanovs. One section of the film focuses on the visit of the Czar, the Czarina, and their 5 children. We know their ultimate fate, so their visit to England, and the family snapshots taken are particularly poignant. The film leaves the audience with a sense of an ephemeral, passing age. There is an elegance here that will never return, and the world that emerges from WWI will be a different, darker place.