There's nothing subtle or nuanced about Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace, the third film in Lifetime’s Harry & Meghan franchise. That, of course, comes with the territory. Set immediately after the birth of their son, Archie, the new film dramatizes the couple’s growing alienation from the royal family, brought on by the rigidity of “The Firm” and its refusal to protect Meghan from racist attacks in the tabloids (and at family events). It’s a heartbreaking story, and one that bears a striking resemblance to the fate suffered by Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, at the hands of the palace and the press.
In the wake of Harry and Meghan’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey, the parallels with Diana aren't exactly novel, but from the start that’s all Escaping the Palace seems interested in doing. The movie opens with the sound of cameras flashing, and we all know what’s coming next: paparazzi scrambling for a shot, an overturned car, shattered glass flickering on the pavement. We see a man run towards the car and wrench the door open, revealing a woman fighting for breath inside. But here, the man isn’t a paparazzi, and the woman isn’t Diana; it’s Prince Harry (Jordan Dean), rushing to the side of Meghan Markle (Sydney Morton), who desperately calls out for help.
Harry’s reality-tinged nightmare previews what’s to come in Escaping the Palace, which goes to great lengths to make the connection between Diana and her youngest son, who was written off for much of his life as “the spare.” Over the course of its 87-minute runtime, the film flashes back half a dozen times to difficult moments in Diana’s life, such as her alleged suicide attempt and her secret interview with biographer Andrew Morton, that would seem to parallel Harry and Meghan’s experiences. At first these past-versus-present scenes serve as a cogent reminder of how little the royal family has changed over the past 30 years, but their effectiveness wanes as the film has little to say about them beyond pointing out their obvious similarities.
It may be unfair to accuse a Lifetime movie of being too on the nose, but given the overwhelming amount of source material (the Oprah interview, the thousands of tabloid stories, more legitimate reports and books, and Harry’s episode of The Me You Can’t See on Apple TV+, just to name a few), director Menhaj Huda and writer Scarlett Lacey had ample opportunity to churn out something that goes beyond a simple retread of both Harry and Diana’s stories. The Oprah interview itself forever changed the way the general public perceives the British monarchy, particularly in the United States. While Escaping the Palace ends with the duo’s headline-making interview, acknowledging this shift in perspective could have added another layer to the conflict between Harry and Prince William (Jordan Whalen), whose future on the throne is now threatened by his brother’s openness.
Menhaj and Lacey do make a few interesting choices that help Escaping the Palace transition out of autopilot, even if only for a few moments. In a clear shift from Lifetime’s previous royal family programming, William is portrayed as the villain of Harry and Meghan’s story, presented as the Thanos-style Big Bad who can’t even be bothered to hide his distaste for Mehgan. At every opportunity, William dismisses his brother’s concerns about the racist treatment Meghan is receiving, particularly by their own family members (the film doesn’t attempt to guess who asked “how dark” Archie might be, instead leaving it as an ambiguous “they”). When Harry and Meghan finally confront William about his willingness to turn a blind eye to overt racism, he shifts the blame to “the system” and his duty to “uphold and protect” it. Gone is Prince William, beloved heir to the throne; in his place, Lifetime leaves viewers with a cowardly, prejudiced man who would rather uphold the institution than support his brother.
Intentional or not, the film’s casting also ends up effectively reflecting the changing dynamics between Harry and Meghan and the rest of the family. Dean and Morton are the third duo to play Harry and Meghan on Lifetime — they join A Royal Romance stars Murray Fraser and Parisa Fitz-Henley and Becoming Royal’s Charlie Field and Tiffany Smith — but much of the larger ensemble around them, including William, Kate Middleton (Laura Mitchell), and Prince Charles (Steve Coulter), have appeared in all three movies. By adding a new central couple and keeping everyone else the same, Escaping the Palace reinforces the fact that Harry and Meghan are growing and evolving, while the rest of the family remains stuck in their ways.
About halfway through Escaping the Palace, Harry says that he’s finally ready to leave “The Firm,” explaining that he and Meghan need to “break the cycle” and “start telling our own story.” While the real royal couple clearly share this sentiment, it’s not one that applies to Lifetime’s new film, which is far more preoccupied with the past than the future. Perhaps Harry & Meghan 4 will forge ahead with an original narrative that provides some real insight into the royal couple today, but for now, Escaping the Palace is content to let history repeat itself.
Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace airs Monday, September 6 at 8:00 PM ET on Lifetime.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.