Friday 28 August 2020

"The Lost Prince" (Guardian 28/08/20)

The Lost Prince ***
Dir: Michel Hazanavicius. With: Omar Sy, Bérénice Bejo, François Damiens, Sarah Gaye. 101 mins. Cert: 12A

Few directors this century have suffered a more precipitous decline in their critical reputation than Michel Hazanavicius. It was less than a decade ago that – hot off his terrific O.S.S. spy spoofs, and newly flush with Weinstein Company support – Hazanavicius carried The Artist to Oscar glory; however, both his immediate follow-up The Search and Godard biopic Redoubtable were met with near-universal shrugs. This family-targeted fantasy sees the filmmaker returning to basics, possibly drawing on personal experience as a father and teller of bedtime stories: it’s very sweet, and quietly corrective not just in centralising a Black father-daughter pairing, but plugging them into the kind of storybook universe Western movies once deemed off-limits to performers of colour.

The plot turns on a feeling of being excluded. In a ramshackle tower block on the outskirts of Paris, we find mechanic Djibi (Omar Sy) bringing up Sofia (Sarah Gaye), a 12-year-old readying for her first weeks of big school. As she makes that transition – pulling away from papa, in the direction of classmate Max (Néotis Ronzon, dead ringer for the young Gaspard Ulliel) – Hazanavicius switches between this reality and the kingdom Djibi has traditionally conjured up for his charge before lights-out. This is a sprawling, American-style studio lot, presided over by Sy in tight, bright leggings as “The Prince”, strutting, Fairbanks-like star of the nightly show, who finds himself locked out of his dressing room once Sofia declares she’s too old for happy-ever-afters.

One could easily imagine a director swamping this story’s human aspects with charmless CGI, but Hazanavicius staffs his fantasyland with character actors and grounds the action in the ups-and-downs of Djibi’s persuasively cramped flat. Sy gives an affectionate impersonation of a big goofball who might well embarrass his offspring, while young Gaye displays an unusual maturity and directness for a juvenile lead. (The sense of a family affair is bolstered by the presence of Hazanavicius’ better half Bérénice Bejo as a helpful neighbour.) It’s a little well-behaved – success has apparently deprived Hazanavicius of the mischief that made the O.S.S. films such a riot – but there’s imagination, heart and empathy here. Don’t close the book on this director yet. 

The Lost Prince opens today at London's Ciné Lumière.

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