She was briefly known as Lady Di for a short time, but she became Princess Diana over a much longer period. No name was appropriate, no matter how you felt about what she represented. When the former HRH The Princess of Wales, 36, died in a car accident in 1997, Diana was just Diana. It had been a simple name, with many ambitions, joys, disappointments, all wrapped up in its petals. She can be loved or criticized as a social climber. The one thing you can’t do is stop looking at her: 24 years after her death, her specter is finding life everywhere, on TV, in the movies and on Broadway. At least in our minds, Diana seems more alive than ever.
She is also more mysterious, an enigma worthy of exploration, something many of us didn’t feel about her 10 or 20 years ago. For a long time—the tragic nature of her death aside, a terrible fate for any human being—it was easy to take her for granted, even to roll your eyes at her a little. As a royal, she looked fantastic in clothes—but didn’t she also wear a pullover with little sheep knitted in, a fashion choice that, pre-grannycore, swerved a little too close to the jeering trend of the ugly Christmas sweater? And if the Diana story was in some ways incredibly sad—her Prince turned out to be a dud in the husband department, deeply in love with another woman the whole time—she was also canny enough to know how to play to her crowd. The “shy Di” Prince Charles first courted—a nursery-school helper with a habit of inclining her head such that her eyes were almost completely hidden by the blondish swoop of her bangs—later became a poised, polished young matron who publicly spilled royal secrets, avowing not-so-subtly that she had married into a family of monsters. The celebrity-victim routine can be disgusting, even if one has sympathy for her.
How should we feel about Diana today? You have so many choices that you can make Diana any type of person you want. In 2016, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín released JackieStarring Natalie Portman. A fantasy intimate portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy. With Spencer Larraín attempts the same treatment for Diana, with Kristen Stewart as the tragic Princess.
Spencer takes place in December 1991, over a dismal Christmas holiday at Sandringham, the royal family’s country retreat, during which Diana decides to leave Prince Charles for good. However, the film feels more like a parody of parody and less like a crying of the heart. Stewart’s Diana is so unpleasantly self-centered that she’d be a terrible guest at any Christmas affair. She’s late for every meal and complains, endlessly, that the family hates her and is trying to paint her as crazy. Meanwhile, she skulks about with her shoulders hitched to her ears, looking as if she’s about to pocket some of the royal silverware.
Continue reading: Kristen Stewart and Pablo Larraín Do Princess Diana Wrong in Spencer
A title card at the movie’s start informs us that Spencer is “A Fable from a True Tragedy,” and Larraín weaves in fairy-tale elements like so many threads of Lurex. Anne Boleyn is a prominent symbol at the Christmas Eve royal dinner table. One unfortunate Queen blinks to warn a woman heading for a similar fate. Stewart, generally a marvelous actor, plays Diana as a mannered doe—the performance is packed with calculation and guile. Larraín may be trying to dive into the satin-and-sadness psyche of a misunderstood and persecuted woman. He accidentally makes this Diana the very thing that the royal family claimed the real Diana was: a smug and irritable complainer or worse, a megalomaniac. With friends like these, Diana doesn’t need enemies.
SpencerIt is highly engineered to win awards. However, the songs-and-dance spectacle is simply too good to miss. Diana: The Musical is more like a work that Diana herself—known to be a fan of spectacles like The Phantom of the Opera—would warm to. The show—with music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, and a book by DiPietro—was set to open on Broadway in spring 2020, before the pandemic brought the curtain down. The live show will finally go on as planned this November, but there’s a filmed version of the production available to watch right now, on Netflix.
This is Diana: The MusicalAny good? But not exactly. The early numbers, especially—during the part of the show that details the meeting and courtship of the young Diana and her Prince-to-be—are bright, cheerful and chirpy. The show’s star, Jeanna de Waal, bursts onto the stage with a peppy-Princess number about being underestimated, which just happens to be called “Under-estimated”: “Your prison has been built/ your downfall’s been devised/ Won’t they be surprised/ when you’re underestimated?”
It feels self-helpful and cheerleaderish. Strangely, however. Diana: The Musical—an effervescently pro-Diana entertainment that also acknowledges how much the young Diana craved the spotlight, only to be burned by it—is a more honest work than Spencer There’s nothing arty or arch about it; you can imagine Diana herself humming the songs, tickled to see her own reflection in them, and pleased as punch that she could inspire a Broadway show. Who wouldn’t like that kind of fame, rendered in a sweet, harmless form—especially Diana, who was first made famous by photographers and then, years later, almost literally hounded to death by them? A Broadway musical, even a silly one, isn’t the worst memorial for a woman who came to be known as the People’s Princess.
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Yet of all these recent portrayals, it’s Emma Corrin’s, in the fourth season of Netflix’s fiction-based-on-fact drama The Crown that comes closest to capturing Diana’s opalescent mystery. Corrin’s Diana first appears as a schoolgirl dressed as a tree sprite for a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Charles (Josh O’Connor) has come to the family home, Althorp, to pick up her older sister Sarah for a date; he spies the young Diana sneaking around in her tights, an awkwardly gamine adolescent who’s trying not to be seen—and yet clearly, desperately, wants to be seen, especially by a real-life Prince.
This scene is marvelous for the way it asks—without necessarily answering: Had Diana been scheming, from a young age, her way into the royal palace? But what if? It’s common for young girls to yearn for fame, to dream of being acknowledged as charming and beautiful, to want to be seen.Corrin is so flirty and mischievous in those early scenes that it helps us see that young Diana’s ambition. We also witness how that joy gives way to disillusionment a few decades later. You are here: The Crown days before the royal wedding, Diana discovers that her fiancé has recently designed a gold bracelet as a “farewell” gift for his not-really-an-ex, the married Camilla Parker Bowles. (Though CrownAlthough the story is fiction, it is factual. The future Princess sees she has been betrayed; she wants to back out of the marriage, but it’s too late.
Crown This is the bride, stricken in that merengue puffy wedding dress. Corrin’s Diana looks so very small; as seen here, that dress—at the time a sigh-worthy symbol of fairy-tale fantasy—may as well be a white wolf eating her alive. Young Diana Spencer got the prize she thought she wanted, and when she realized how hollow it was, she reinvented herself to fit into her strange, unhappy surroundings—and then reinvented herself again to get out. We are not sure who she was. She died while trying to become that person.