Last week I suffered from film-induced whiplash. One minute I was watching Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, in which Diana, Princess of Wales’s last Christmas with the British royal family is like being trapped in a haunted mansion full of malevolent waxworks. The next, I was revelling in the adorable idiocy of The Princess Switch, in which a Chicago patisserie owner called Stacy swaps places with a lookalike duchess at Christmas, and falls in love with the Crown Prince of Belgravia.
We’re not talking about the posh London district of the same name, but a fictional, Ruritania-style kingdom somewhere in the region of Romania, whose treasury must now be coining it from the number of Christmas romcoms being shot in and around its fancy castles.
If the House of Windsor’s standing has been devalued by a lawsuit involving the Duke of York and the acrimonious familial rupture with Harry and his American wife, Netflix is busy restoring public confidence in monarchical systems, albeit imaginary ones. The Princess Switch trilogy shows that an American baker from a mixed-race background (Vanessa Hudgens playing three roles) can be warmly embraced by Mitteleuropean royalty.
Likewise, age-old traditions are nudged into the 21st century in the 2017 film A Christmas Prince. Here, a feisty American blogger called Amber (Rose McIver) meets, marries and has a baby with the titular prince, heir to the throne of Aldovia, the country next to Belgravia in the Netflix Christmasverse. Both trilogies feature diverse casting in which neither race nor sexual proclivity is ever remarked upon.
Indeed, in this year’s Single All the Way, the romcom formula is tweaked so the central couple are gay, but this causes not even a hint of disapproval in the New Hampshire host family, which sets about same-sex matchmaking with gusto. Truly these are all-inclusive fairytales for our times.
Christmas settings add shiny new baubles to familiar romcom cliches: not just precocious kids, airport dashes and mutual antagonism melting into romance, but also Christmas trees, Christmas markets, Christmas carols and snowball fights, to a degree where seasonal obsessiveness begins to feel almost as oppressive as Christmasland in Joe Hill’s horror novel NOS-4A2, where unhappiness is against the law. American women are forever finding themselves by travelling to some never-never European past where they are romanced by the local royalty – or aristocracy in the case of this year’s A Castle for Christmas, directed by Mary Lambert, probably still best known for 1989’s scary Pet Sematary. But no scares here: Brooke Shields plays an American novelist called Sophie Brown who seeks refuge from a minor scandal by burying herself in remotest Scotland, where she tries to buy a castle from an impoverished Duke (Cary Elwes). Cue Christmas jumpers, a full range of diverse supporting characters, and snowballs galore.
While the desire to marry above my station stopped at the age of eight, when I realised I couldn’t get hitched to Prince Charles because having two Princess Annes would confuse the nation, I still wallow in the delusion that I might one day write a bestselling novel that will enable me to buy, if not a castle, then at least a one-bedroom flat. So Sophie’s story speaks to me more than most. But while Christmas romcom heroines have flourishing careers, they also persist in nonfeminist dreams of true romance with a prince or (in 2019’s A Knight Before Christmas) a knight in shining armour. What’s the attraction? My guess is the allure of wealth, power and attention, although, as Spencer rams home, the real-life requirements of a royal family are the polar opposite of the romcom message of being true to yourself. As Spencer’s Prince Charles points out, Diana must adopt a fake public persona if she is to survive.
But we can dream. Perhaps the whole point of Christmas romcoms is they enable us to bask, however fleetingly, in the delusion that we can have it all. Love Hard, the smartest of this year’s crop, deals in unvarnished truths: online dating profiles are invariably fake; Die Hard is a better Christmas film than Love, Actually; the lyrics of Baby, It’s Cold Outside are worryingly sexually aggressive. But it still persists in the fib that you can’t celebrate Christmas without a soulmate. As Joni Mitchell once sang: “A woman must have everything.”