I have to confess that I am no fan of the British royal family. Not that I have anything against them; I’ve just never paid much attention to the constant royal gossip, the romances and weddings, the newborn babies and long, long funerals. I felt very bad about Princess Diana’s death — but not bad enough to want to see her troubled marriage and tragic end replayed endlessly in feature films, TV documentaries, and Broadway musicals.
But I was fascinated by Harry & Meghan, the six-part Netflix documentary series, in which Diana’s younger son and his American-born wife talk about their romance, marriage, battles with the press, and ultimate break with the royal “firm.” The series has been widely panned in the British press (“a very Californian exercise in grievance,” said The Telegraph), and not treated much better in America. “A viewer really has to be on board the royal soap-opera bus not to be bored out of one’s mind by Harry & Meghan,” wrote the Wall Street Journal.
Well, I never boarded that bus, and I was riveted.
Yes, Harry & Meghan is too long (like pretty much every series on streaming TV these days). And yes, the documentary— which was directed by Liz Garbus, but produced by the royal couple themselves — is only their side of the story. Yet rarely, if ever, have we been offered such an intimate, candid, empathetic glimpse of the real people behind the royal façade.
The response to the series has, in some ways, been just another symptom of the stresses that Meghan and Harry faced in trying to live anything close to a normal life in the public spotlight. When the last three episodes were unveiled last week, the headlines were all about the rift between Harry and his brother William over the couple’s decision to step away from their royal duties and move to California. “It was terrifying to have my brother scream and shout at me, and my father say things that simply weren’t true,” Harry said, acknowledging that a permanent “wedge” has been driven between the brothers.
Yet it was merely a few seconds out of a long and complex story, the sort of sensationalistic press coverage that, as the show illustrates, nearly drove the couple crazy. Indeed, the documentary’s granular account of Harry and Meghan’s efforts to evade the relentless, overwhelming, often terrifying pursuit by the tabloid press is the best up-close picture of the perils of enormous celebrity that I have seen.
The documentary is beautifully made, nicely balanced between the couple’s first-person account (they apparently sat for multiple interviews, in various settings, always flatteringly shot) and interviews with various friends and family members, most notably Meghan’s poised and impressive mother. Harry comes across as warmer, more grounded, and more vulnerable than I expected; Meghan more intelligent and self-aware — especially sympathetic in her account of the strained relations with her father (who didn’t attend her wedding) and the damaging interviews given by a vindictive half-sister.
Is the series one-sided and self-serving? Of course it is — just like any first-person memoir or “authorized” biography (or, for that matter, Steven Spielberg’s candy-coated version of his childhood in The Fabelmans). Yet watching the real royal couple open up for the cameras only reminded me why I’ve grown so bored with the actors doing impersonations and soap-opera cliches of fictionalized accounts like The Crown.
Is there another side to the Harry and Meghan story? I’m sure there is. Let them make their own documentary. If it’s as penetrating as this one, I’ll be watching.