‘the royal we’ and the revitalization of movie romance – the washington post

By Alyssa Rosenberg October 20 Follow @AlyssaRosenberg

Word that Netflix was reviving Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls” for a mini-series sent squee-waves through the television-loving Internet yesterday. Even in a pop-culture environment where it seems that any property (except maybe Sherman-Palladino’s ballet show “ Bunheads“) can find a way to rise from the grave, the news that Sherman-Palladino would be allowed

to end “Gilmore Girls” on her own terms after another showrunner was allowed to wrap up her mother-daughter drama starring Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel during its original run, was big news. But to my mind, the biggest Lauren Graham-related news from Monday involved not a deceased series but an exciting new movie project that has Graham as a writer and a producer rather than a star: she and “Parenthood” co-star Mae Whitman are adapting “ The Royal We,” a delightful romantic novel from Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, the bloggers behind the fashion site Go Fug Yourself.

(Credit: Hachette Books Group)

The news that “The Royal We” is slated for movie adaptation is exciting not just because it’s a terrific potential role for Whitman, who is set to star as Bex Porter, an American exchange student who falls in love with Nick, the heir to the British throne while studying at Oxford, and not just because I’m all for more women like Graham and Whitman making their own projects instead of waiting for projects to come to them. At a time when romantic comedies and romantic dramas have been in a prolonged slump, “The Royal We” is the kind of book that, if adapted properly, could revitalize these badly listing, but still vitally important, genres.

Most critically, “The Royal We” is a romance in which the participants face real obstacles to happiness, rather than highly contrived plot points that are meant to keep the story spinning out for 90 whole minutes. Some of those barriers are the product of the novel’s very specific riff on the real-life courtship of Prince William and Catherine Middleton: Nick faces astonishing pressure as a result of his position; the couple is hounded by the paparazzi; and Bex’s American-ness provides her critics inside and outside the royal family ammunition to paint her as boorish, unsuitable and even disloyal. Even if Bex and Nick have a very privileged set of problems, they don’t feel spoiled or indecisive, and Cocks and Morgan are frank about the privileges and downsides of what might seem like a fantasy from the outside. When Bex realizes, “This was not the life I would have chosen, but Nick would always be the person,” that realization is hard-won and genuinely moving.

And much of what Bex and Nick have to contend with is fairly normal: jealousy from a romantic rival, the way their relationship interferes with sibling bonds, the loss of a parent and the fact that they met and fell deeply in love before they were necessarily mature and secure enough to make a permanent commitment to each other. If nothing else, the actual emotional weight of the storytelling in “The Royal We” would distinguish that story from the underdeveloped dramas that seem to have eaten romantic dramas and romantic comedies.

And, delightfully, “The Royal We” also has a strong set of friend characters with dramas and motivations of their own beyond their role in guiding Nick and Bex toward happiness. Cilla and Gaz, Bex’s best friends, have a wonderful screwball dynamic. Bex’s friend Joss and sister Lacey both provide an interesting perspective on how the early years of professional life can strain young people’s relationships, especially when some are more successful than others. And in Clive, Bex’s first Oxford boyfriend, Cocks and Morgan have created a portrait of the modern journalistic rat race that blessedly manages to avoid cliches about how younger writers are corrupting a supposedly once-honorable medium.

Casting Whitman as Bex Porter also sharpens one of the strongest themes in “The Royal We,” the grueling process that an ordinary person has to go through if they’re to be presented as an aspirational fantasy object, and the sheer scale of the infrastructure that’s required to make that transformation happen. While some of the drama in “The Royal We” comes from whether Bex and Nick decide to stay together, the third act is driven largely by the grueling makeover that Bex is subjected to after she and Nick get engaged.

“[Marj, a member of the Queen’s staff] micromanaged my appearance and comportment, assessed the curve of my back in my natural stance, weighed and measured me weekly, drafted nutrition plans, and diagrammed what about my personal grooming needed to change and how fast,” Cocks and Morgan write. “My eyebrows were filling in, and now it was my head’s turn: a nominal number of extensions were bonded to my insufficient hair, with more added every two or three weeks for maximum subtlety, until we reached the desired level of luxuriousness.”

While this sort of transition might play out as a post-breakup montage in a traditional romantic comedy, scored to empowering music and lofting our heroine (who was never terribly poorly groomed or dressed in the first place) toward eventual romantic and professional triumph, it’s a grimmer process in “The Royal We.” Bex is bowing to the palace’s standards, rather than unlocking her own potential, and her friends are enlisted as members of a Bex Brigade, tutoring her on the minutiae of the British nobility, confining her to healthy snacks and making up an elaborate system to prevent her from being late to events. Cocks and Morgan are never terribly specific about Bex’s body type in the novel, except to note that she’s not wildly curvaceous, but she is recruited as a fit model by a friend with an interest in fashion design, and photographed in all sorts of bikinis by the paparazzi during a period when she and Nick are broken up.

If a highly conventional Hollywood actress were to be put through these paces, this part of “The Royal We” might resemble that standard montage, losing some of its sharpness. But putting Whitman, who at times has been the victim of the entertainment industry’s insanely homogenous beauty standards, in the part makes it more likely that the point that Cocks and Morgan make so deftly won’t get lost. A makeover isn’t always a treat or a fantasy. It can be a form of punishment.

In book form, “The Royal We” was a treat with actual ideas about what makes a relationship work and what it means for a woman to become a consumable object. This combination has been largely missing from the movies from far too long. Graham and Whitman will be doing us a delicious service if they manage to bring it back.

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