No one saw this coming. Not me, and therefore, I assume, no one else. In our defense, the teaser for “Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance” provided no evidence — or even much justification for optimism — that the movie itself would be low-key amazing.
The brief trailer captured all the most cookie-cutter Lifetime moments (like Harry telling Meghan, “I don’t need my life to be this perfect royal picture. I just need you”) and passionate bedroom interludes. This had a haunting appeal of its own, to be sure. It’s ghoulish, but if Lifetime wants to show us fake Harry and fake Meghan smooching topless in bed, I will not turn away.
But approximately every third Lifetime rom-com features a prince going down on one knee in front of a comely American. What makes “Harry and Meghan” different from the usual offering of “handsome-ish barista from Wisconsin portraying the crown prince of Mendavia woos onetime network sitcom child star playing an aspiring fashion designer” — aside from how much wine I drank while watching (about half a bottle)?
The script, for one thing, which hopscotches wildly from schmaltz to snark. After Princess Diana’s funeral, Prince Charles takes his sons to Botswana, where he begins lecturing them on the importance of reflecting on the broader sweep of history by visiting the “birthplace of mankind.”
“You’re not going to start quoting ‘Lion King’ again, are you?” Prince William says with a sigh. Yes! William’s first line in the movie is a crack about the 1994 Disney movie “The Lion King.” Reader, I was done for.
And that’s before we even meet the grown-up William, portrayed by Burgess Abernethy. How striking the resemblance — to your 43-year-old tax accountant. Grown-up William says things like “I’m just having a giggle” and uses a coffee mug that reads “World’s Best Dad.”
Not every royal fares well in the script. The fake Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge (Laura Mitchell), takes on the tough but necessary job of making married life look miserable (“Marriage isn’t so bad, is it, Will?” she asks her husband pointedly, as he evades her gaze), and the members of the royal family look calculating and cold. She doesn’t like that Americans are “so loud,” and sniffs her doubts that this upstart actress could handle the rigors of royal life. By the time we see her assuring Meghan that “us commoners have to stick together” and confiding in her about feeling like a “baby-making machine,” it’s too late: I hate Kate now.
It wasn’t all sunshine and English tea roses for the real Harry and Meghan Markle either. I feared that Lifetime would gloss over the racist reaction Markle faced when their relationship became known and superimpose a more palatable, standard-issue rom-com conflict. But instead of giving us a lame storyline about Meghan — I don’t know — seeing Harry kiss an ex-girlfriend’s cheek and fleeing to Toronto in tears, Lifetime gave us some real talk about race.
OK, sometimes this real talk feels … not so real. At the end of the movie, Queen Elizabeth shows Harry and Meghan a portrait of her ancestor Queen Charlotte, a German princess with Portuguese roots who may have had African heritage. “Oh, yes, you’re of mixed race, Harry,” says Elizabeth. “And so am I!” A very sweet scene that also seems a tad out of character for the matriarch of the royal family, which has long been cool about research into Charlotte’s racial background.
Other moments feel more painfully honest. After a royal hanger-on at a tea makes a snide comment about Meghan’s hair, then tries to touch it, Harry becomes righteously incensed. This is just how things are, she tells him. “Let’s fight how things are!” he exclaims. “If anyone can, it’s you and me.” She replies, calmly, “You have never seen how ugly people can get about this.” To enlighten him, she relates a painful story from her childhood about being out with her mother, who is black, and seeing a white man call her the N-word.
But fake Meghan does not say “the N-word.” She fully drops the word, in the middle of this primetime, soft-filter Sunday romance. Jesus, Lifetime, I hope you plan to pay the dry-cleaning bill for my wine-stained couch.
This could all have gone wildly awry; a script is only as good as the actors who bring it to life. Often Lifetime movies are fronted by former teen soap stars who check only one acting skill box, like “sexy squinting” or “natural-seeming laugh” or “looks like she’s really drinking coffee even though it’s an empty cup.”
But Parisa Fitz-Henley, as Meghan, and Murray Fraser, as Harry, are top-shelf Lifetime talents.
(Fun aside: Fraser is only 23, just a couple of years out of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Fitz-Henley is 41! Talk about goddamn female empowerment. Let’s cast more movies in which the woman is decades older than her male costar.)
When Harry and Meghan engage in first-date banter about his showing up 40 minutes late, it could easily have been a cringingly wooden exchange of quips. I mean, “It would really hurt my street cred to be seen in public with a guy who can’t tell time” is barely even a joke. But Fraser and Fitz-Henley deliver their lines like two people actually trying to impress each other on a date, not like two community theater actors doing a first table read, and I ate up every second of it. When they laughed, I laughed. When they caught their breath and leaned in for a kiss, I caught my breath and leaned toward the TV, which was unreceptive to my advances.
Or maybe it was the wine.
Look, “Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance” is the type of movie best enjoyed with basement-level expectations. Do not cue this up on your DVR and head in expecting a special episode of “The Crown.” This is, as promised, just for the real monarchy trash out there. Only cornballs welcome here! An entire subplot of the film follows Harry’s mystical lion sightings in Botswana, which may or may not be visitations from his late mother. Or, in my mind, Aslan. It’s bonkers!
The edges are rough, production-wise. Who can blame them? A top-quality movie doesn’t get made and released in the six months between a royal couple’s public engagement and their nuptials. At one memorable moment, the two’s first blind date is interrupted by “sunrise,” which arrives with the abruptness of a powerful lamp being switched on offstage. At another, the film noticeably cuts to news footage of a car going into the real Buckingham Palace. Hey, they tried their best.
The movie, in general, leans heavily on their target audience’s knowing the general arc and milestones of Harry and Markle’s relationship, which relieves its creators of the obligation to transition smoothly from scene to scene. Why not just jam in a scene in which Harry confronts a crusty old British lady wearing a racist Blackamoor brooch at Pippa Middleton’s wedding? Princess Michael of Kent did once wear a Blackamoor brooch at a lunch with Markle, and royal fans will be excited to see that tidbit pop up in the fictionalization.
The movie takes certain liberties with the timeline and the actual events in order to squeeze it into a rom-com template, but mostly it’s just a checklist of aww-able moments: The engagement chicken! The public statement from Harry defending his new girlfriend! Meghan bonding with Elizabeth’s corgis! Botswana!
I thought “Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance” would be terrible as well as intoxicating, but instead it was perfect as well as intoxicating. I loved the weird spirit lions. I loved the no-holds-barred approach to race and Meghan’s feminist activism. I loved our new accountant uncle, William. I loved Kate’s rebirth as the British Regina George. I loved when fake Harry told his family that he wouldn’t make Meghan shut down her blog, The Tig, because “that blog is part of her identity.” (Anyway, she totally did shut down the blog, but I appreciate the sentiment.)
And I love that I don’t have to watch the actual wedding next week anymore. Nothing could possibly top this.