No one should have to watch A Christmas Prince alone. Netflix’s surprise hit from last year, about aspiring journalist Amber and her wayward royal love interest, Richard, combines every seasonal romantic-comedy cliché into a holiday movie that rivals anything made by Lifetime or Hallmark. It’s the kind of movie that’s meant to be experienced with a group, huddled around a roaring fire to bask in its goofy tropes and roast its flimsy plot holes like so many chestnuts. Last year, those qualities helped A Christmas Prince become a viral sensation online, with commentators gathered around a figurative hearth to snicker at the heroine’s inane note taking. Netflix even tweeted to let viewers know that it was in on the joke.
But if your friends are too cool—or maybe not cool enough—to sit down to watch A Christmas Prince with you for that 19th consecutive viewing, don’t despair, because the movie actually comes with a built-in commentator, someone with just the right amount of snark but who won’t interrupt the momentum or judge you if you tear up at the end. Hidden among the language options for A Christmas Prince, you’ll find a track labeled “English—Audio Description,” a feature created primarily so that blind and visually imparied viewers can follow along with the film. A typical audio-description track will chime in between lines of dialogue as needed to explain what’s happening on screen for people who can’t see. But in the case of A Christmas Prince, the audio description serves another bonus function, because it also happens to be the ideal A Christmas Prince–watching companion.
Good audio description does not call attention to itself. Every audio describer I’ve spoken to has emphasized that one of the fundamental tenets of the craft is never to show off or distract. By that logic, to single out A Christmas Prince’s audio description at all—even to praise it—is to suggest that the audio describer failed in some way at his job. But that’s not really fair. A Christmas Prince’s audio description, created by Roland Bearne, does exactly what it’s supposed to, delivering straightforward observations about physical appearances, facial expressions, and other visual cues. For instance: “The sign on the terminal building says Aldovia International Airport” or “A young woman enters and whispers to the man.”
Occasionally, Bearne does indulge in some more literary language, but it’s the kind warranted by a cozy Christmas movie. Take his description of the countryside surrounding the Aldovian palace: “A town nestles in a snowy valley surrounded by mountains. Snow-covered chalets are clustered on a high hilltop. Dense evergreen forest is dusted with snow, and a convoy of vans drives along a wooded road.” There’s a storybook quality to the word choice that’s appropriate, matching the modern-day fairy-tale aesthetic of the movie’s visuals.
It’s not unusual for audio describers to also work as voice artists, and Bearne is no exception, narrating his own description for the film. It helps that his voice has a rich, deep timbre and, as in the case of A Christmas Prince, that he can play up his own jaunty accent so that it’s befitting of one of the movie’s own Aldovian royals. (Bearne is British, but he can also do a spot-on American accent when the occasion calls for it.) While the content of the description itself is hardly a Mystery Science Theater–style commentary track—that kind of editorialization would certainly be frowned upon—Bearne’s intonations and inflections are unusually expressive as he narrates. And his delivery is often wry, almost amused, as though he too is enjoying the film semi-ironically.
I was so taken with the movie’s audio description that I reached out to Bearne, who works as a freelancer for a number of post-production houses and studios, including Netflix, to ask him about the track and his process. Bearne has worked as an audio describer for almost two decades, having started his career with Star Trek: The Next Generation for Sky in the early 2000s, and he also brings to the job his skills as an actor and poet, both of which are evident in his description. “Some would say I have a preposterous vocabulary, but that’s just a quirk of nature,” he said. “It’s lovely when you get a film like A Christmas Prince. You’ve got these wonderful establishing shots of these fabulous environments that look like a Victorian Christmas card, and you can allow yourself to share that with your audience. You could just say, ‘There’s a castle on a hill,’ but that doesn’t seem to do it justice, really, does it?”
Netflix tried this year to re-create the magic of A Christmas Prince with its sequel, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, which winkingly mimics the qualities that made the first one an accidental sensation: schmaltzy heart-to-heart discussions, one-note villains, and absurd plot developments that melt like snowflakes under the slightest scrutiny. Similarly, the sequel’s audio description honors the original’s spirit: I’m happy to report that Bearne returns, sounding equal parts entertained and resigned to be a part of Amber and Richard’s love story again. While overall a bit more subdued, Bearne does still indulge in occasional poetic license for the sequel: “Rudy stares up at the stone and timbered palace perched high in the snowy pine forest.” He also develops a new kind of verbal tic, a tendency to use the passive voice, as in “Amber is handed a cup of tea and Flags are waved and banners raised and Nail polish is painted on toes.” It’s as if he’s trying to say, yes, this is really happening, and you—and I—are just along for the ride.