William & Catherine: A Royal Romance (Hallmark Channel, Saturday at 9 p.m. ET) opens with a tracking shot of a manservant striding through palatial halls and trotting down carpeted stairways. The building like looks a compromise between a common area at the Bellagio and a confused idea of an old-school East Coast men’s club—and this probably indicates that the set is a private home reflecting a certain Orange County sort of classiness—but ye olde soundtrack toots and trills in a particular way. This is England. More importantly, it is America’s England. Most specifically, it is a romance-novel idea of England but minus all the good English hokum. One longs in vain for stormy heaths and windswept moorlands and rascally earls. One gets what one ought to expect.
The manservant comes upon a door flanked by two guys in quasi-beefeaterish uniforms standing sentry at a walk-in closet. He brandishes a key, walks into the closet, and extracts a jewelry box from a safe. This he delivers to a young man who sits in a capacious den watching his late mother deliver to the camera a heartfelt address regarding her hopes and dreams. It is not immediately clear whether this recording is a videotape that Diana left for her elder son in the event of her untimely death or if it is a copy of an old TV interview or what, and the success of the moment depends on that confusion. We’re on a level of reality at which it’s totally fine—preferable, even—that the footage of the fake Diana has the tone of a monologue delivered in a “confessional booth” on a reality show. Or of a guardian angel speaking from beyond the grave. Will opens the jewelry box to meditate upon his mother’s engagement ring, and the producers whisk us hazily away to a flashback. “Dahling,” Di coos to her tow-headed tot, “someday you’ll give a girl a ring like this …”
At this point in the made-for-TV-movie history of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, it seems clear that any tall, tawny-haired, lean-faced young man capable of a British-ish accent will suffice as Will. This iteration of His Royal Highness happens to be played by one Dan Amboyer, who looks a bit like Ryan Gosling as styled for a late-’80s Tiger Beat photo shoot. His performance, being no worse than competent, far exceeds the demands of the role. This is, remember, a presentation of the Hallmark Channel, a venture committed to the full employment of alumnae of Aaron Spelling soaps.
Kate is played by Alice St. Clair. Again, a survey of contemporary royal kitsch demonstrates that most any slender brunette with a shine in her eyes and a swell to cheekbones will pass muster as a stand-in for Kate Middleton. St. Clair, who combines a Katie Holmesian coltishness with the approachability of any given teenager selling fro-yo at the mall, is quite up to the task. This rendition of the royal love story propose a meet-cute notably different from the story retailed by other women’s channels, not to mention network news divisions. Will introduces himself to Kate on his first day of college, after they physically collide. She drops her laundry basket; he ogles her undergarments as chivalrously as possible. Soon, they are flirty good friends. She even lends him an ear when he’s struggling to study in a pub, the producers having invented for her a part-time job as a bar wench. The next fall, they are living together with two roommates, when one night, down in the basement, in another laundry moment constituting the most erotic scene in the film, the commoner feels the future king’s breath on her neck as she teaches him how to use liquid fabric softener.
Where the two leads are fledgling performers at the start of the careers, the actors playing their older relations have no such excuses for appearing herein. As Queen Elizabeth II, four-time Oscar nominee Jane Alexander reckons with lines slightly more challenging to deliver than any Helen Mirren had to reckon with in The QueenThe Queenor, for that matter, Caligula (R-rated Version)Caligula. We first see Elizabeth playing lawn darts during a fancy-dress party celebrating Will’s 21st birthday. “Ah!” she says after Kate curtsies, “One of the fab four flatmates I’ve heard about!” Later, when Kate and Will are enduring a rough patch, Elizabeth has a phone conversation with Prince Charles: “My father, you know, never got over the scandal involving my uncle David and that woman Wallis Simpson …” Victor Garber plays Charles without any pronounced interest in verisimilitude. His Prince of Wales seems improbably interested in talking about his feelings, and he corrects his mother on the proper pronunciation of Kanye West.
Meanwhile, the casting of Jean Smart as Camilla Parker-Bowles tilts William & Catherine into the realm of silliness. She enters the proceedings like a Kim Cattrall version of a Barbara Stanwyck vamp, with the camera sliding up her right leg from high heel to thigh-high slit. It is quite difficult to take Smart, with her familiar American face, seriously in the part of a famous woman who is already something of a camp figure. And it doesn’t do any good to take her unseriously, either. A Hallmark Channel movie demands sincerity and delivers the same with the cheerful simplicity of a greeting card.