Reviewer: Charity Bishop
History has forgotten the youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary of England. Hidden away from the world due to his mental and physical illnesses, the child is no more than a footnote in most historical volumes from the era. But what he witnessed forever altered the face of Europe and prompted renowned English filmmaker Stephen Poliakoff to bring his story to the small screen.
Four year old Johnny (Matthew Williams) is the apple of his grandfather's eye. The youngest of the royal children and the most unique, his quiet temperament but outspoken comments have won the heart of Edward VII (Michael Gambon). Somewhat overlooked among his siblings, Johnny has the distinction of suffering from epileptic fits, a condition which alarms and humiliates his parents and forces him to remain under the constant supervision of his devoted nurse, Lalla (Gina McKee). These episodes are infrequent but frightening and the royal family has managed to thus far conceal them from public knowledge. His only other source of affirmation and affection is found in the form of his older brother Georgie. Believing that these fits may disconcert visitors to the palace, his doctors encourage Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson) to have him removed to the country.
There, Johnny (Matthew Thomas) is all but forgotten while the world changes around him. As he plays in the woods, struggles with his lessons, and tends a beautiful garden, the powers in Europe begin to shift. Georgie (Weeks) is bound for the naval college but his true passion is art and politics. Fascinated with the inner workings of the court's social functions, he finds an unlikely friend in his father's trusted advisor, Stamfordham (Bill Nighy). His education in foreign policy is increased when disastrous news comes from abroad that one of their allies has been assassinated. The intricacies of the plot are less memorable than the characters, as this is a glimpse of history we have never seen before. It is our chance to see into the insecurities of those involved as well as attempt to understand the motives behind their actions. The eccentricities and insecurities of the adults are hinted at with just enough prowess that we fully comprehend them.
Some audiences found the film rather dull but my interest in the period, curiosity toward the royal family, and enthrallment with the beautiful performances did not make it seem over-long or melodramatic. There is some truly exquisite acting involved, enough to have gained multiple award nominations and a handful of wins. Richardson and McKee demand the greatest respect, as one plays an emotionally distant monarch who is mentally much less self-confident than she appears, and the other is an impassioned woman determined to believe in Johnny's potential. Their final scene together is heart-wrenching as we witness the quiet grief of one, and the breakdown of the other. Hollander is a much under-appreciated thespian in his own right and his depiction of the frustrated George V is haunting, particularly in his grief. I am coming to have tremendous respect for Nighy and this production is no exception. There is a quiet brilliance to his low-key performance. But this is one instance in which the children outshone the adults -- Rollo Weeks and Matthew Thomas were outstanding in the role of the princes.
Younger audiences might want to avoid this film for the time being due to the intense thematic elements. Johnny is shown several times in an epileptic fit. There are a couple of mild abuses of deity but for the most part the name of God is used with respect in prayer. One aspect that is especially gut-wrenching to watch is the murder of the Romanovs. We see the entire family fall as they are mowed with bullets and know some of the children have been shot a second time. Callous soldiers remove anything of value from the bodies, then carelessly drag them across the lawn and dump them in a waiting cart. I have only seen a couple of productions about the Romanovs, but this is one of the more brutal depictions of their death.
It is the nuances of the characters that will be remembered longer than the events depicted therein, and the genuine heart of the film is apparent in its more quiet moments. Even though the story is ultimately one of sadness as we watch a young man experience life distant from his family, there are moments of poignancy to remind us of the value of his existence. In one tear jerking scene, Johnny brings not only his family but their advisors to tears with a beautiful trumpet recital. He may have been the prince that time forgot, but thanks to this production, the rest of us will remember him forever.