We gave it a B+
Like all classic romantic couples — Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher — the Prince and Princess of Wales were destined to be mythologized as pop icons of the first order. And like Joey and Amy, Charles and Diana are a scandal-ridden couple who have been generously accommodated by television as the subjects of no fewer than three TV movies in the past year alone. Each Chuck-and-Di divertissement has been designed to exploit the sad ending of a fairy-tale marriage with maximum melodrama and intricate irony. For instance, in the latest and best of them, Diana: Her True Story, there’s a revealing scene in which a friend tells an 18-year-old Diana Spencer rattled by Charles’ attentions: ”Don’t miss this chance, Diana — he’s the goods!”
In the same sense, this NBC movie is the goods, at once more convincing and more elaborately campy than its immediate predecessors, CBS’ stuffy Women of Windsor last October, and December’s silly Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After on ABC. While as fussy and overwrought as any royals fan could want, this version also carries the harsh, tinny ring of one-sided truth. It’s based on the best-selling 1992 book of the same name by Andrew Morton, touted in the just-released paperback edition as ”one of the best-informed authorities on the royal family.”
Or, as is by now commonly conceded, one of the best-informed by Diana and her mates, who leaked all sorts of juicy details to Morton about the princess’ unhappiness as a pampered hostage of Buckingham Palace. We’ve read about it in newspapers, magazines, and books, but there’s nothing like the live-action verisimilitude of the television medium to make the retching wretchedness of Diana’s misery-induced bulimia quite so, er, vivid. The book’s most shocking anecdote — that Diana, in a fit of rage after a spat with Charles, threw herself down a flight of castle steps while she was pregnant with her first child — is employed as a cliff-hanging, freeze-framed, sickening splat to conclude the first night. While it is highly sympathetic to Diana, Her True Story is also nothing if not cynical about how to use her as a ratings grabber.
The princess is played with great charm by British actress and model Serena Scott Thomas, who more closely resembles a softer version of Murphy Brown‘s Faith Ford than she does the angular princess. Charles, on the other hand, has found his dead ringer in David Threlfall (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Patriot Games). Threlfall has a horsey, long-jawed face that is similar in shape to the prince’s, but the actor has brought his own witty technique to the role: not merely stiffening his upper lip but freezing it, while constantly chewing on the lower one, with the result that Charles’ upper-class-twit voice always sounds faintly strangled and agonized.
Indeed, so artfully does the actor simultaneously impersonate and satirize Charles that the script regularly seems too heavy-handed in comparison with Threlfall’s subtle work. The teleplay was adapted from Morton’s book by Stephen Zito, who brought a similar literal-minded zeal to last year’s Fergie & Andrew: Behind the Palace Doors.
Thus in this True Story, Charles is a selfish, pessimistic, melancholy mope who doesn’t realize the prize he has in Diana (at one point, Charles’ father, Prince Philip, shouts at him: ”This is no time to be droopy!”). Diana, on the other hand, is radiant and girlish, good-natured yet strong-willed, driven to emotional extremes by the coldness of her new husband and his even colder family as well as by the dizzying confusion of suddenly becoming an object of intense media scrutiny.
From the moment of their marriage in 1981 to their recent separation, Charles and Diana are shown here to have been a bickering, suspicious couple. Her True Story turns Charles’ longtime friend Camilla Parker-Bowles (Elizabeth Garvie) into a seductive viper always seeking Charles’ affections. By contrast, Diana may adore fancy clothes and not even mind the attentions of potential suitors who nickname her Squidgy, but the emphasis here on her devotion to her children and the volunteer work she has done with AIDS patients is intended to raise her beyond reproach. Director Kevin Connor has somehow managed to turn all of this into a classy-looking movie about a distinctly un-classy aspect of the British upper class. B+