Playing Princess Diana: from Spencer to The Crown, how to get it right (and how some got it so wrong)

·5-min read
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It makes sense that, until very recently, the best screen depiction of Diana was one where no one really played her at all. In Peter Morgan’s 2006 film The Queen, she is but a hurried figure getting into a car, chased by men on motorbikes. As we watch the Royal Family struggle to understand the public mood after her death in 1997, she remains an invisible but disruptive force, throwing the Firm into freefall. We don’t need to see or hear her to know that she never really went away.

How could any star meet the seemingly thankless task of playing the people’s princess, a woman who was as elusive as she was over exposed? Diana already did it better than anyone ever could. Her Panorama interview from 1995 is still ringing in our ears – “she won’t go quietly, that’s the problem,” possibly my favourite bit of method acting ever. It doesn’t help that her own life story, told bluntly, feels forever stuck uneasily between high blown soap opera and Grimm’s fairy tale. Girl dreams of marrying prince. Girl’s dream comes true. The kingdom falls in love with her. The prince doesn’t. You know the rest. Her death is seared into the collective psyche – everyone has their own ‘where were you when you found out’ story.

This week, Pablo Larrain’s heavily garlanded Spencer finally hits cinemas. Kristen Stewart is now tipped for Oscar glory for her interpretation of Diana, but the freighted role initially made her so nervous, she says, that her jaw clamped up. Her Diana is a woman on the verge, living on three hours’ sleep, confiding in servants and talking to pheasants. The film, more Angela Carter than Andrew Morton, is bound to be divisive. It’s intensely hallucinatory, and Stewart gives us a bewitching psychological portrait of a woman who feels cornered. Watching her is even more thrilling when you think that it was only last year that Emma Corrin’s head-tilting turn as Diana in The Crown made the young actor a star. Two portrayals in twelve months, both completely different, both royal standard. Elizabeth Debicki is set to take over from Corrin for The Crown’s fifth series, which will apparently dedicate an entire episode to the Panorama interview. We’ll have to wait until next year to see how she measures up, but the first released picture of her, sullen and alone, is uncanny.

Emma Corrin won hearts as Diana in the fourth series of The Crown (Netflix)
Emma Corrin won hearts as Diana in the fourth series of The Crown (Netflix)

Getting it right isn’t easy, though. Some cultural depictions of Diana have been more sheep jumper than three-mile taffeta wedding dress. Aside from a plethora of unmentionable TV movies (have some respect), Naomi Watts did her best in the 2013 film Diana, but one critic declared “Wesley Snipes in a blonde wig would be more convincing”. Watts later disowned the film, calling it “a sinking ship”. Based on the last two years of Diana’s life, including her affair with doctor Hasnat Khan, it’s more like a ‘Who was Diana and who was her boyfriend?’ article from a website that makes you feel unclean. Likewise, a new Broadway musical about Diana was universally panned after premiering on Netflix last month. The songs are terrible, the wigs look flammable, and Diana is portrayed as an empty female empowerment figure who never has any idea what’s going on. “Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio,” she sings at one point, which isn’t even the worst lyric.

The disastrous Diana the Musical
The disastrous Diana the Musical

The problem with these portrayals is that they’re overly portentous, overwhelmed by the knowledge of where the story must end. It’s too close to the hysteria that dominated the national mood after her death, sincere but also suffocating. And where’s the humanity? The story they tell is too simplistic, like Ian Rank-Broadley’s recent anniversary sculpture of Diana, which portrayed her as an open-armed, pencil skirt-wearing gatherer of sweet children, rather than something more real: a flawed, fabulous but frustrating individual.

Elizabeth Debicki as Diana in The Crown, series five - but we won’t get to see it until next year
Elizabeth Debicki as Diana in The Crown, series five - but we won’t get to see it until next year

Diana has fascinated artists and creatives for years. David Baddiel, part responsible for 90 per cent of our national identity with Three Lions, even wrote a novel in 1999 called Whatever Love Means, in which the heady hysteria of her death drives two people into bed together. But the more memorable work has always had an element of frisson, challenging the way the media characterised her (and infuriating them at the same time). Remember Stella Vine’s ‘Hi Paul can you come over I’m really frightened’ painting, bought by Charles Saatchi in 2004? It caused a frenzy, with Diana shown wide-eyed and bloody-mouthed, but Vine said she saw herself in the painting as much as the vulnerable princess.

Kristen Stewart in Spencer
Kristen Stewart in Spencer

But when it comes to playing the part, Corrin’s portrayal of Diana worked because, aside from being incredibly well-observed (that peer through the eyelashes! That sad dip in the voice!), it gave us an insight into a shy young woman trying to come to terms with becoming one of the most famous people in the world, almost overnight. Larrain’s film takes it further. We know from his 2016 film Jackie, a claustrophobic look at a jittery Jackie Kennedy in the days after JFK’s death, that this is a filmmaker who is interested in interrogating what it means to be an icon. “I think, culturally speaking, [Diana]’s one of the best-known people of contemporary culture. And at the same time, is the most mysterious person ever. That paradox… is just wonderful for film, and for art,” he said in an interview.

Stewart, who admitted she often wondered during filming what Diana thought — and, even, if she could see her — said at a press conference that the film “doesn’t offer any new information... it imagines a feeling.” That’s exactly what it does. And that’s why, for my money, her Diana feels the most definitive so far. The key to getting it right, it suggests, is not to reconstruct her life but to summon an atmosphere; not to make audiences think we’re watching her, but to know how it felt to be her.

Spencer is in cinemas today

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