How director Liz Garbus ended up in Harry and Meghan’s ‘orchestrated reality show’

A scene from Liz Garbus's Harry & Meghan - Netflix
A scene from Liz Garbus's Harry & Meghan - Netflix

To be the director of the year’s most talked-about documentary series is usually an accolade that any filmmaker would kill for. However, in the case of the double Emmy award-winning and Academy Award-nominated Liz Garbus, her involvement in the hotly anticipated Harry & Meghan, which has now – finally – arrived on Netflix, represents a poisoned chalice of sorts.

Garbus has built an enviable, decades-long career at exploring the dark underside of humanity in both her documentary and feature work. Her films include everything from examinations of high-security jails and Islamic terrorism to serious investigations of such eclectic cultural figures as Nina Simone, Bobby Fischer and Jacques Cousteau, as well as directing the fourth season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale. So what on earth drew her to the Royal Family’s most troublesome – and loquacious – exiles?

Early indications before the programme aired were that Garbus was brought in to steady the ship of a troubled project, rather than to imprint her own directorial stamp on it. The original director Garrett Bradley, who had harmoniously collaborated with Netflix on 2020’s Naomi Osaka, about a tennis prodigy, left during production. Rumours suggested that Bradley wanted Harry & Meghan to shoot at home, which led to a lack of trust between the filmmaker and the documentary’s subjects. (The final film has multiple shots in their of them being interviewed in what appears to be their palatial Californian house.)

After what an anonymous source called "a few sticky moments between them", Bradley left the project, citing that old standby, "creative differences". Harry and Meghan’s Archewell production company then was on hand to film B-roll footage, but until Garbus came on board earlier this year, the film lacked a guiding imprimatur. The cynical might say that it was as rootless as its subjects.

It was also unfortunate that, before Harry and Meghan aired, the sensational trailers were carefully examined frame-by-frame, and many of the shots of desperate paparazzi, apparently on the hunt, were revealed to have had nothing to do with the couple: one was taken in 2011 from a Harry Potter premiere, long before they ever encountered one another. Yet the trailers do the finished film a disservice. Rather than being a tawdry wallow through the figurative rubbish bins of the duo’s public reputation, it is as comprehensive an examination of the pitfalls, and occasional advantages, of global fame as can be imagined. It’s just a pity that it’s so boring.

The Duchess of Sussex has already distanced herself from the project. In an interview with the media publication Variety, she suggested that "It’s nice to be able to trust someone with our story – a seasoned director whose work I’ve long admired – even if it means it may not be the way we would have told it. But that’s not why we’re telling it. We’re trusting our story to someone else, and that means it will go through their lens."

She has hedged her bets; in the same interview, she said "It’s interesting. My husband has never worked in this industry before. For me, having worked on Suits, it’s so amazing to be around so much creative energy and to see how people work together and share their own points of view. That’s been really fun."

In fact, the closest project to this that Garbus has been involved in before is the 2020 Ariana Grande documentary Excuse Me I Love You, also for Netflix. It was immensely successful, but critics were disappointed that it did not offer a more penetrating examination of Grande’s life and work, being instead a standard-issue concert film with some brief and unenlightening quotes from the singer interspersed between the songs. But Garbus only received a production credit, rather than a directorial one, and it has been suggested that her involvement was limited to behind-the-scenes interviews that she conducted with the singer, along with her husband, fellow filmmaker Dan Cogan. In any case, despite Grande’s immense popularity, it cannot compare to the column-grabbing zeitgeist that the Harry and Meghan project represents.

Liz Garbus with her husband and producing partner Dan Cogan in 2021 - Getty
Liz Garbus with her husband and producing partner Dan Cogan in 2021 - Getty

If one is being kind, her new film represents an examination of themes that Garbus has explored throughout her career; this is far from the sensationalist wallow in tawdry gossip that many might have anticipated. This makes it more worthwhile from the perspective of Garbus’ filmography – this is not the rushed, for-hire job that might have been anticipated from the change in director – but it is also a good deal less revelatory than may have been anticipated. Hence the intrinsic tedium.

It is entirely clear that Garbus, who has made no secret of her left-leaning politics, is wholly on the side of her protagonists, which gives the show a charge of righteous anger at the iniquities that they have suffered, but also means that the documentary can – and presumably will – have charges of partisan bias levelled against it. There has been no Harry and Meghan-sceptical voice allowed in the show thus far, presumably because it would detract from Garbus’s argument. Or, perhaps, that her Netflix paymasters would not allow such a dissenting figure to be included. There is no shortage of people who would have been available, after all.

The central thesis of the first three hour-long episodes is that the relationship between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex was threatened, and nearly undone, by uncontrollable levels of overt racism within Britain. This was then fanned by an out-of-control tabloid press that was tacitly licensed, even encouraged, in their outrages by the wider Royal family, which saw positive press coverage of their exploits as a necessity for the continuing survival of the monarchy.

An orchestrated reality show? Netflix's Harry & Meghan - Netflix
An orchestrated reality show? Netflix's Harry & Meghan - Netflix

The historian David Olusoga and writer Afua Hirsch are prominently featured, offering context both on British society’s relationship with slavery and the way in which the Commonwealth was a hegemonic institution that smacked of nothing so much as imperialism. It's a reminder, if one were needed, that Garbus is making Harry & Meghan for an international audience, and one less than well-disposed towards the snobbish, hidebound British.

Her film has used a great deal of new and existing material, indicating that the couple have been planning such a show for a considerable time. Some of it is almost dazzling, a collage of everything from home videos of the young Meghan to rare newsreel footage of the Royal Family. Some of it, however, feels like part of an elaborate PR stunt. Practically the first thing we see is Harry – apparently in March 2020 – at the tail-end of his and his wife’s quasi-abdication tour, speaking into what looks like an iPhone and asking "How did we end up here?"

Well might he ask. And then, a moment later, he advances his credo, which we have heard many, many times before. "My job is to keep my family safe." Meghan, meanwhile, is introduced offering similarly candid commentary. ‘I just want to get to the other side of all of this’, before breaking down in tears. Harry declares ‘This isn’t just our story…this is so much bigger than us.’ He expresses his intention of taking on his twin nemeses – the media and the Royal Family – and we buckle up, and await the revelations.

That these have been largely unforthcoming in the first half of Garbus’s film – animosity with the wider ‘Firm’ is hinted at rather than stated explicitly – might be out of a desire to keep the most scandalous material until the second half is broadcast next week. Or it might simply be that Harry has been keeping his powder dry until the publication of his memoir Spare in January. (The third possibility – that he wishes to make peace with the Royal Family, who he still loves dearly – is barely worthy of consideration.)

It is telling that the director can be heard asking the Sussexes questions off-camera at various points – and can even be seen, briefly, in the opening episode, in a Hitchcockian cameo – as it makes it clear that this is a reputable director’s film, not just some standard-issue puff piece. Yet there is a telling detail. At the beginning of the third episode, Meghan jokingly refers to how her engagement interview was nothing more than "an orchestrated reality show".

Much the same could be said of Garbus’s film. For all of the time and skill spent on it, it is perpetually clear who is really in charge. Harry & Meghan ends up being nothing more than a high-profile orchestrated reality show in its own right: the compromise between a brilliant director and perhaps the least interesting subject matter she has ever worked on.