Diana’s story is pure cinema – but will it continue to enthrall?
As the old adage goes, you wait an eternity for a bus to arrive, and four come along at once. The same could be said of cinematic incarnations of Princess Diana: the past decade has seen at least four actresses don flaxen wigs and unwieldy shoulder pads, with Kristen Stewart the latest to cast bashful glances from under a bouffant feathercut for the biopic Spencer.
Diana still sells as many magazines in death as she did in life, her power even spawning the delicious term, “Dianafication”, the late pop-culture phenomenon of investing emotionally in the life of a public figure. Coined in light of the weeks-long show of public mourning following Diana’s death – a spectacle that verged on the grotesque – it is now broadly applied to unhealthy attachment to celebrity and the softening of the British stiff upper lip.
But why, exactly, does our emotional obsession with Diana endure?
“She’s joined the iconography of Marilyn, Jackie O and Grace Kelly,” says royal biographer Christopher Wilson, “goddesses frozen in time. What makes her extra special is the tale woven around her of an innocent girl caught up in an epic drama: she was beautiful, she became a princess, she was deceived. And the brutal nature of her death ends her life like a Greek tragedy.”
In the 24 years since her death, the details of what she endured – struggles with depression and bulimia, the breakdown of her marriage – have only made her more relatable. But she wasn’t just a tragic figure – she was vibrant, smart, stylish, chaotic and possessed of a wicked sense of humour. Who could forget her “I’m a Luxury” jumper, or the “revenge dress” (pictured above) she wore when Charles admitted his adultery, or any number of interviews that strayed wildly off script.
“It’s a story that lends itself to cinema”, says City A.M. film editor James Luxford.
But that comes with pitfalls. Diana, the 2013 biopic starring Naomi Watts and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, was met with widespread ridicule. Fingers mostly pointed to the hammy screenplay, but others felt its decision to focus on the final two years of the Princess of Wales’ life was the wrong call. It was certainly a happier time for Diana, following her break from the Palace and finding new love, but that’s not particularly conducive to engaging drama.
Good cinema needs conflict. “What Spencer and The Crown realised is that the early part of her life, as a young woman entering a fairy tale only to discover it’s a nightmare, is far more dramatic”, says Luxford.
In The Crown, Netflix spends the fourth season exclusively on Diana’s life from the ages of 16 to 28, a period which saw her lured and then poisoned by her rarefied surroundings and the mounting pressure of international fame (she was, for a time, dubbed “the most photographed woman in the world”).
In Spencer, writer Steven Knight also sticks to a short but pivotal timeframe, setting the action at the bitter end of Di and Charles’ marriage, as they endure a bleak Christmas at Sandringham.
Such is the magnetism of Diana as a character, that any actress who embodies her attracts a bit of Dianafication herself. Propelled to fame by her nuanced turn as Diana in The Crown, Emma Corrin was quickly sucked into a whirlwind of press and paparazzi. “I’m getting overlap,” Corrin told Harper’s Bazaar, “People have not let go of her yet”.
What’s particularly interesting about Stewart’s casting is that she, too, has been hounded by paparazzi, her every move recorded and judged.
“I have tasted a high level of that [fame], but nowhere near that monumental symbolic representation of an entire country,” Stewart said at the Venice Film Festival. She went on to muse that “ironically [Diana] was the most unknowable, known person” – a fact that certainly added to her allure.
The desire to somehow know this unknowable woman, even in death, reached absurd levels in July, when viewers of ITV’s This Morning were surprised to see an aged Diana impersonator in the studio dressed as the princess might have looked at 60.
There are further hints of absurdity in Netflix’s recently released Diana: The Musical, a surprisingly high-production show with Jeanna de Waal in the central role, shimmering in Swarovski and belting out such lines as: “Beyond the palace staffs/ beyond the photographs/ A fairytale come and gone”.
The next Diana will be enlivened by Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown’s fifth season, though one gets the sense that she won’t be the last. “There’ll be many more Diana films in the years ahead, each taking a new angle, until the truth is almost completely buried under a carapace of fiction”, says Wilson, adding that “she’d have hated any new film depicting her. But her legacy belongs to the film-makers now, not her.”
That, sadly, is the fate of nearly all historical figures who’ve struck a chord: obsessed into oblivion. Icons like Diana capture the public imagination, their legacy morphing with the times, at the mercy of Dianafication.