Tuesday, September 7, 2021


It’s plain to see why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have become a most fascinating celebrity story of our time. It has everything: tragic backstory, complicated family dynamics, international politics, conversations of privilege and empire, race and class, royalty and, yes, romance. The youngest son of the tragically killed Princess Diana, the party boy veteran settles down after falling for a biracial American actress. It’s quite a story, even if that’s as far as it went. Marrying into the ongoing tabloid soap opera that is the royal family, however, sadly guarantees that’s not the end of it. In the disreputable genre of ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movies, the whole complicated narrative is obvious grist for vaguely-lookalike unknown performers to get made up and reenact moments we read in tabloids. Lifetime, the leading purveyor of this once more prevalent genre, has now done it three times. And the third time is something like the charm because it finally has enough story, and permission from recent revelations, to lean all the more heavily into scandal roiling with suspense and emotional upheaval.

Thank Oprah for that. Her widely seen primetime CBS interview with the couple remains one of the most captivating TV moments of the year. Impeccably staged and probingly candid—albeit still carefully managed—and given the space to go on in detail, the former talk-show host proved she still had the considerable presence and skill she developed over decades in this space. She allowed Harry and Meghan to present a united front, speaking openly and guardedly about issues with the family. Racist comments toward their children. Unfair treatment in security and publicity. A lack of concern for their emotional and psychological well-being. Oprah’s reputation as a facilitator of Important Conversations, and the sagacity with which her every furrowed brow and nodding head—there’s no better listener on TV—and turn of phrase—“Were you silent or silenced?” was an instant classic—contains lent gravitas and believability to their captivating revelations. (It also made me wish Oprah did this more often. We’re not exactly overflowing with good interviewers anywhere these days.) These stories didn’t come out of nowhere. The couple had already stepped back from their royal status, a turn which followed a rabidly racist English tabloid culture and off-the-record reports of palace discord. It’s not news to hear stories like this leak from the place, but the source made it all the more persuasive.

So without that confirmed reporting from their mouths, it’s no wonder Lifetime’s earlier attempts to dramatize their lives flailed. In 2018’s Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, a pretty tepid rom-com filled time on the network’s schedule. It made the whole thing dewey-eyed in the most mechanical ways, and hand-waved the real issues in the mix. The movie has Harry coo sympathetically that he understands the Black experience because he has red hair, and ends with the grandmotherly Queen telling her staff it’s okay Meghan is Black. The network’s sequel, 2019’s Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal is a feature-length montage of made-up moments tepidly staged and flatly developed. Best is probably a little arc with a fake British morning show as the bobble-headed hosts slowly diverge—one representing the scoffing white male prejudice, the other a woman who reaches her breaking point with him. Both films are pretty bland with makeup slathered on like a thick polish and every scene lit like an IKEA showroom. It’s pretty clear the filmmakers had a tight budget and cramped ideas, with little insight into what to do with the story at hand. They didn’t really know what they were telling. Turns out, it was because we didn’t have all the information.

Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace is a different beast entirely. It grabs the throat right away, with a revving engine over black, a smash cut to a car crushed in a Parisian tunnel. It understands the stakes at play. Turns out it's a dream sequence. It’s Meghan in the car. Harry sits up in bed sweating, with the gasping fear that accompanies every such scene you’ve ever seen. One could call this tasteless, but it’s also out to joltingly embody the Oprah special’s implications. Here’s a man in love with a woman who he increasingly fears is doomed to the same fate as his late mother. He sees the same swirl of factors brewing on the horizon. Most of the movie isn’t as dramatic as its opening, but is still plenty invested in the drama, the sense of real people in all the news. It stands up the conflicts and allegations with a subtext-less verve. Subtle, it’s not. But it is restrained and respectful, with even that attention-grabbing, controversy-courting opening intended to be fair to the real motivations of real people. Those looking to be superior to the form will certainly find plenty at which to scoff. And it certainly would not stand up to scrutiny if you put it next to a big-budget theatrical standard. But connoisseurs of the TV movie will recognize its flat-footed charms.

Returning director Menhaj Huda makes it with the same bland wallpapering of muzak-ish score, stock footage establishing shots, and simple, brightly lit staging as the previous films. But the acting chews into meatier scenes, with meaner personality clashes and tightly navigated discomforts. And there’s an underlying tension to the conflicts that build up a head of pressure on the family drama. Huda matches it with some pushier camera moves and snappier cutting. We see negotiations between family and fame, palace politics and brand management, and the gilded cage of their privilege as they yearn to break free. The heartbroken and the greedy alike plot and snipe, behind each other’s backs, of course. (There’s also a cavalcade of other dilemmas, from Prince Andrew to the pandemic.) There are relentlessly ironic juxtapositions and manipulatively positioned flashbacks to Princess Di for counterpoints. And the sense of royal fragility cooks up fine fissures of melodrama. I enjoyed it in the junk food way it’s intended, turning a real recent news story into a fast-paced tabloid tale gratefully committed to energetically recreating the juicy details without quite losing the human feeling inside. It’s about as good as this quick, cheap, surface-level production could be. But it’s also worth noting the Oprah interview did more in a conversation than this movie does in all its well-intentioned hustle.

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