Friends Best

The streaming series Young Royals, produced by Netflix Sverige, is a coming-of-age story about teenagers with the unusual feature that the main actors are themselves only teenagers. (Most series aimed at teenagers seem to employ actors in their twenties.) Because of this focus, the reviews of the series I have seen are aimed at parents deciding whether or not they should allow their teenage children to watch it.

Seeing no other adult reviews, I thought to write a review of the first season of YR. I am minded to review this series because the artistry – the story, the writing, the acting, the cinematography, the direction, the music, the production and the editing – are all superb.

An actor’s expression of the personality of a character is in small moments and movements – for example, the details of stance and deportment, hand movements, and the attentions of the eyes. These small aspects can express what words cannot, and can add nuance and subtlety to a performance. In Young Royals, the actor playing the teenage Prince Wilhelm, Edvin Ryding, for instance, bites his nails whenever Wilhelm is worried or anxious. As Wilhelm enters and settles into a deep friendship and relationship, the nail-biting stops, only to return when he later faces a major personal crisis. (I am trying not to give spoilers). I was reminded of the fist-tightening and finger-flexing of the actor Montgomery Clift in Judgment at Nuremberg, which I talked about here.

There is another Clift resonance in the hesitation of Wilhelm’s speech. Monty Clift was famous for his verbal pauses and false starts and mid-sentence hesitations and what sounded like improvised modifications on-the-fly. These were not normally in the scripts he was given, which were declamatory and perfect, but had to be inserted by Clift. (See my post about this, here.) Only Arthur Miller seemed able to write specifically for him, as he did in The Misfits.

In YR, as his relationship with Simon (played by Omar Rudberg) deepens, Wilhelm more than once pulls back, but he never quite articulates the reasons. Rather, as real people do, he says, “I’m not . . . I’m not . . . Sorry, I’m not . . .” (in the scene by the window at the end of Episode 2), and then, in the Music Room scene in Episode 3, “I’m not . . . I’m not like that.” Why does Wilhelm not say exactly what he is not? It may be that he does not wish to say aloud something that he knows is true, but has not yet admitted to himself, or that he does not wish to be known publicly. I think this is likely to be the conventional explanation of his hesitations. Contemporary society likes to label people, and so expects every person to be ready to provide a label to make this task easier for everyone else.

However, before admitting something to ourselves, we first need to know it, and refusing to voice something may be a way of keeping that knowledge away from ourselves. I have met many people, even some very intelligent, with personality traits or attributes that they have not known that they have. All of us have weaknesses and blind spots, but we may not know that we have these. It is commonplace to call such behaviour self-deception, but deception (of any sort, whether of self or others) requires intent. People may not be sufficiently self-aware about the trait to even deceive themselves. Ryding’s portrayal here of Prince Wilhelm is both subtle and insightful.

Over the six episodes of Season 1, Young Royals also shows the personal journeys of the main characters, and throughout these journeys, the acting is excellent. Ryding’s different public and private deportment as Wilhelm (stiffly and nobly erect in public, sinuous and feline in private) reminded me of the distinct physical presentations Brad Pitt gave for his two characters in Meet Joe Black. In YR, the eye movements of the two main characters – stealing glances first at each other, then with each other, then avoiding looking at each other at all – are superb. The trajectory of their glances alone shows the personal journeys of the characters as their friendship and mutual trust gradually deepen and change. Similar eye-dances occur between the other main character pairs in the story: Felice and Wilhelm, August and Felice, Sara and Felice, August and Sara, even August and Simon. And Wilhelm’s physical demeanour and way of speaking change again when he challenges August’s plan to handle the drug bust: Wilhelm shows a will to control events, a confidence, and a ruthlessness that is quite unlike the uncertain character presented to the world up to then. In parallel, Simon shows a strong assertion of his own self-interest in his confrontation with Wilhelm outside Simon’s house near to the end of Episode 6, refusing to be anyone’s secret. The characters in Young Royals are not cartoon characters, drawn in simple bold colours, but nuanced psychological portraits, which is why I consider this an adult series.

The eye movements and the physical interactions between the various characters in this series were apparently all tightly choreographed, as has long happened with film scenes involving stunts and danger. In addition, the interactions in YR were prepared with the assistance of an Intimacy Co-ordinator (Sara Arrhusius), something new to performance arts. Accepting that all physical interactions first require individual consent from the participants, even for the touch of a hand on an arm, and that consent may be given or withheld depending of the specifics of the interaction and on subjective feelings on the day, must surely help actors become comfortable enough to forget themselves in these scenes. The tight choreography of the physical interactions contrasts with the spontaneity of the dialogue, which was apparently often improvised, working through multiple takes. Good improvisation requires the actors to have and share a deep understanding of the characters, their motivations, and their personal emotional journeys. Improvising through multiple takes also allows adjustments of camera positions (helped here by lots of close, hand-held shots) and direction, and so makes the filming process more like a theatre workshop than is conventional in film.

A subtle aspect of the portrayals in YR is that the personal journeys of the characters are not monotonic: for every step forward there may well be a step or two back. One of the strong aspects of the screen writing and directing is that episodes end in mid-scene where we may easily imagine the characters moving beyond in their journeys. Only in a subsequent episode do we find where they got to, and usually only by implication. For example, do the characters kiss in the scene outside the party at the end of Episode 1? Is there more than a kiss after the end of Episode 2? This uncertainty helps to make the series compelling viewing, and vests the viewer in the story.

Such nuanced acting is remarkable for any actor, let alone for people in their teens or just out of them. For Omar Rudberg, 21 at the start of filming, this was his first acting role, and yet the result is superb. And, although Edvin Ryding was only 17 years old at filming, he had already had 12 years of acting experience by then. His performance in YR shows what can be achieved with deep, intelligent, and creative preparation. Why do people act? Playing someone else can teach a person about themselves – who they really are, what they enjoy doing, what they like or dislike, who they enjoy to hang out with, etc. This is no doubt why teenagers (and even older people) try on different personas in different settings. As well as expressing an actor’s creativity, acting can be a means towards finding oneself. Playing characters who are also still finding themselves strikes me as a major challenge for an actor, since the actor’s target is moving, and why I think the acting in YR is so good.

There are two moments which act like portals or bookends for Season 1. The first is in Episode 1 after Wilhelm gives a TV interview with his family all sitting together on a sofa to announce his transfer to Hillerska Skolan. The TV cameras are to the Royals’ right-hand side, while the cameras for the Netflix series are to their left. At the end of this scene, Wilhelm looks directly at the Netflix cameras. He does the same at the end of the final scene in the final episode of Season 1, as his car is driven away from the School Chapel after the Christmas service. In both cases, his glance directly to the Netflix cameras is an acknowledgment to us, the audience, that he knows we are there. Because this happens in Episode 1 before he comes to Hillerska Skolan, and in Episode 6, as he leaves it, these two scenes feel like bookends or quotation marks. What is their purpose? Perhaps they are telling us that what we saw was a story, and perhaps not the whole story. Perhaps we have not been allowed to see everything or that we only saw events from one perspective – Wilhelm’s.

There are many other aspects to like about this series: the strong female characters; the use of actors of diverse ethnic backgrounds, without this being discussed or even an issue; the realistic portrayal of mixed-ethnicity households, with family members speaking in different languages to one another (eg, Simon’s mother asking her children questions in Spanish, to which they respond in Swedish); the realistic quirkiness and particularity of many of the characters; the strong impression that all the characters have deep backstories, which we are sometimes allowed to glimpse. Miles Copeland II once said that Jilly Cooper, speaking of English society, had told him that “people from opposite ends of the social scale can like one another while people of two levels close together rarely do.” (Copeland’s words, p12 of his 1989 autobiography.) This may explain some of the cross-class aspects of the story, which are touched upon, but mostly remain ripe for story development in subsequent seasons.

The series has apparently been a great global success for Netflix. An irony of this success is that Ryding and Rudberg have now experienced some of the consequences of fame we witness Prince Wilhelm experience in the series: warm greetings from strangers in the street; intense social media interest in their lives; fans turning up to their public events. Rudberg had already had some experience of this, as a singer and member of a Swedish Boy Band. As Clive James once remarked, fame is a mask that may eventually eat away your face.

Netflix has commissioned a second season, and shooting starts on 14 February 2022. And a final link with Montgomery Clift: The two scenes at the end of Episode 2, where the two main characters first interact physically, were apparently shot on 17 October 2020. Monty was born on 17 October 1920, a synchronicity that could lead one to think the Gods of Acting have looked upon, and blessed, this series.

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