A made-for-TV tale of marital discord between the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After coincides with a wave of stories in both the tabloids and the mainstream press confidently asserting that their marriage is kaput. With interest in this high-toned tiff — a royal union turned pop-culture phenomenon — at an all-time high, ABC’s timing is perfect.
The big question is whether dedicated Chuck-and-Di-hards will be put off by the ludicrously simplistic, comic-book approach of Unhappily Ever After. This TV movie, written by Nancy Sackett (When Will I Be Loved?), is a relentless plod through all the best-known moments of the royal kafuffle, with dramaturgy worthy of an elementary school pageant. Soon after the obligatory actual-footage snippets of Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding ceremony, we are hurtled into the couple’s bridal suite, where Charles (Cheers‘ sniffy Roger Rees) and Diana (Dynasty‘s snarky Catherine Oxenberg) are nibbling each other’s considerable earlobes. An aide to Charles barges in with some bit of royal business, and Diana whines, ”Charles, it’s our honeymoon — I wanted us to be alone.” Charles says wearily, ”People like us are never alone.”
See, we’re supposed to murmur to ourselves, they were in trouble from the very first night. Unhappily views every event in the couple’s past through the lens of its troubled present. As the newlyweds stroll the grounds of their Highgrove country home, Charles says, ”I’ve always had a passion for gardening.” Diana sneers quickly, ”I loathe gardening.” Soon, Diana is sublimating her thwarted ardor with narcissism. There is a lengthy montage of Diana’s trendsetting hats, dresses, and high-heeled shoes, as a royal hairdresser gushily advises Diana, ”Establish your individuality with fashion!”
Diana comes off much worse than Charles — she’s presented as a flighty rube who doesn’t understand the significance of her role in British history. Whenever she’s not out boogying in a London nightclub (high-culture snob Charles snipes, ”Diana prefers modern music — Supertramp, Kid Creole and the Coconuts ”), she’s barfing down a royal toilet. ”Just don’t get anorexic, eh?” bellows Fergie (Tracy Brabin). This Fergie is a real pistol — a braying harpy who will later tell Diana, ”Separation can do wonders for a marriage!”
Oxenberg, who portrayed Diana 10 years ago in a rosier made-for-TV movie, The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, is permitted one scene in which Princess Di almost comes off nobly, in a compassionate visit to a hospital ward filled with AIDS patients. It’s a touching moment until Diana tells one man, ”I know what it’s like to be alone.” For this junk movie to have Princess Diana compare the woes of her exalted life to those of a person dying of AIDS is nothing less than obscene.
By contrast, Unhappily‘s Charles may be a priggish bore, but he’s a brooding, romantic bore, finding solace from his crumbling marriage in his hobbies — gardening, classical architecture, and ”longtime friend” Camilla Parker Bowles (Jane How). Even the prince’s publicized eccentricities are dealt with kindly in Unhappily. After a gaggle of tabloid photographers are chased off his property, the privacy-craving Charles sighs, ”And they wonder why I talk to my plants.”
Charles and Diana will have to endure at least one more TV movie: NBC is prep-ping a spring miniseries based on Andrew Morton’s best-selling Diana: Her True Story. But for its unique combination of dumbness and cynicism, Unhappily Ever After will be hard to beat. D+