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Epic and intimate, 'Lost Prince' is a noble effort

There's so much to praise in "The Lost Prince," it's tempting to recount each scene in obsessive detail, marvel at its psychological subtleties, linger over its quiet grandeur. The two-part miniseries, a new installment of "Masterpiece Theatre," is a faceted jewel of a production, gleaming with fine performances and sharp insights about the British royal family before and during World War I. It's the kind of TV feature that rivals anything likely to be considered at the Academy Awards this year. About the disabled son of King George V, Prince John, who was hidden from the public eye in the early 20th century, the drama is a model of graceful, hypnotic storytelling.

The best thing about "The Lost Prince," which begins tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2, is that it unfolds through the eyes of its two young heroes, Prince George and especially Prince John, known as Johnny. The backdrop is the charged, complex period from 1908 to 1919, when the last vestiges of the Victorian era gave way to the tragic modernity of the Great War. Empires are collapsing, the British royalty is losing its political power, and old allies are dissolving -- most dramatically when King George V (Tom Hollander) denies his cousin, the Russian czar, refuge in England.

But all this world-shattering intrigue is revealed peripherally, as the boys catch glimpses of it while spying on dinner parties or overhearing snatches of conversation. And this elliptical narrative is particularly intense once Johnny is exiled to rural royal homes, far away from London and his family.

The decisiveness with which Johnny's parents shun him is a cold spectacle, as they lavish their attention on stamp collections and rare artifacts. Suffering from epilepsy and what appears to be autism, the "lost" boy generally stares off into the middle distance, coming into the moment only to utter truths generally unspoken in the rarefied, repressed royal sphere. "Look, that silly man has food stuck in his beard," he announces about a dignitary, to everyone's dismay. And his seizures arrive at inopportune moments and are frightening to behold.

Only Prince George (Brock Everitt-Elwick and, later, Rollo Weeks) and the loyal nanny, Lalla (Gina McKee), see the joy and love in Johnny's innocence. Lalla travels with him, and she fights ferociously to keep the king and queen from institutionalizing him. She's more maternal than Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson), who rarely visits with her son and can mutter only banal pleasantries -- "I understand your garden is making great progress" -- when she does. She tells Lalla, "No visitors at all must be allowed to see him, for their sake and his." Not only does she view her son as an embarrassment, she believes he is a political liability.

Richardson gives a fascinating performance -- both horrifying and quite sympathetic. Her still, dignified expressions are so finely nuanced, you can always see behind the mask -- her medical ignorance about her son's illness, her hyper-consciousness of her own high position, her almost genetic disposition toward emotional repression. When her queen does shed a tear, it's a small miracle.

Richardson's work is matched by the rest of the cast, particularly Daniel Williams and Matthew Thomas, who play Prince John at two different ages. Both of the young actors make Johnny's disability into something sweetly stubborn. McKee is touching but not maudlin as the devoted Lalla; Bibi Andersson is weighty as Prince John's grandmother, Queen Alexandra; Bill Nighy is immensely likable as court confidant Lord Stamfordham, who refuses to talk down to young Prince George; and Michael Gambon delivers a small but memorable turn as Johnny's worldweary grandfather, Edward VII. "That boy is always right," he notes with some amusement.

"The Lost Prince," written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, is both intimate and epic. It stays remarkably close to all its characters, and yet its scope includes global flux and the redefinition of British royalty. It takes us into the corners of the castles where children are strangers to their parents, where austerity thrives amid decadence, where even eye contact is regulated. It's a dark tale, but one suffused with the light of a brilliant interpretation.

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