The Diana dilemma
The new film Spencer is attracting critical accolades – and controversy – for its portrayal of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Actress Kristen Stewart, best-known for her role as Bella in the Twilight films, is earning Oscar buzz for her performance as Diana. Although Vanity Fair observes that “So much of Oscar success can be circumstantial,” for Stewart, “the circumstances might finally be right.”
A five-star review in the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph praised Spencer as an example of “thrillingly gutsy, seductive, uninhibited filmmaking,” but noted that “there is no risk whatsoever of [director] Pablo Larrain’s resplendently mad, sad and beautiful Spencer being mistaken for a historical fact.” When writing the screenplay for Spencer, screenwriter Steven Knight imagined a fictional holiday weekend at the Queen’s Sandringham estate in 1991 during the breakdown of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. Daily Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin wondered if Spencer would be the film to “break the curse,” as “the history of Princess Diana films is littered with flops and farragoes.”
Why is it so difficult to create a successful film – or play, novel or TV series – about Diana? Fictional portrayals of Diana often struggle to convey her real-life charisma while providing a fresh perspective on her life and death. The source material about her private life is itself full of contradictions. Diana famously worked with Andrew Morton on his controversial 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story and subsequent biographers have scrutinised the veracity of some of her statements. The milestones of Diana’s public life, however, are so well known that many people can remember exactly where they were when Diana married Charles in 1981 or when the news broke that Diana had died in a car accident in 1997.
Pop culture portrayals of Diana, from the worst to the best, all have something to say about Diana that goes beyond her famous life and tragic death, examining wider issues from the influence of the tabloid press on celebrity culture to the future of the monarchy. Here, we take a look back at the most significant, and discuss why some Diana-themed movies, novels and plays flopped, while others managed to connect with audiences searching for an authentic take on the famous Princess.
10. Diana, The Musical (2021)
A play with music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro
The life of a famous and controversial woman who died in her prime has inspired musical theatre before. Andrew Lloyd Webber transformed the life of Argentina’s First Lady Eva Peron into the 1978 musical Evita, with Madonna assuming the title role in a 1996 film adaptation. Diana’s life appeared to be perfectly suited for a similar tale of a charismatic young woman emerging from obscurity, marrying a famous man, connecting with the public, doing charity work, eclipsing her husband’s fame, then dying young. Diana, the Musical, however, did not enjoy Evita’s success.
Diana, The Musical was supposed to have its Broadway premiere in March 2020, but then COVID-19 struck. Determined to find an audience, the production was instead filmed in front of an empty auditorium and released on Netflix in October 2021. Audiences didn’t know what hit them.
The Guardian newspaper declared in a one-star review, “If it was deliberate satire, it would be genius, but it’s not.” Despite the incredulous reactions of both critics and audiences who assumed that a musical this bad must be a campy satire, lyricist Joe DiPietro defended the production in an interview with the BBC, stating “I never approached this as a campy show…To us, it’s really about an extraordinary and important woman of the last century who made a lasting impact.”
A clip widely shared on social media (with the comment, “I am reporting this to the international war crimes tribunal”) showed Jeanna de Waal as Diana at a classical music concert singing awkward rhymes such as “The Russian plays on and on/Like an endless telethon/How I wish that he were Elton John” before breaking into a bizarre dance sequence with Charles to the song “This is How Your People Dance.”
Believe it or not, Diana, The Musical is not the first fictional depiction of Charles and Diana’s marriage set to music. The music video for the 1983 song “Everyday I Write The Book” by Elvis Costello and The Attractions imagined the newly married Charles and Diana living a dull middle class life in which Charles desperately tries to impress his wife while a bored Diana watches silent movies on television.
9. Diana (2013)
A film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, written by Stephen Jeffreys
At first glance, the 2013 film Diana appeared to include the ingredients for commercial and critical success. Oscar nominated actress Naomi Watts portrayed Diana and there were genuine efforts made to recreate Diana’s hairstyle and fashions. The screenplay was not another dramatisation of the breakdown of the marriage of Charles and Diana (Charles is discussed but never appears in person). Instead, the film focused on Diana’s comparatively little-known affair with heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) and his role in Diana’s life during her last years. The story was inspired by Kate Snell’s 2001 biography, Diana: Her Last Love.
When the film premiered, however, it received almost universally negative reviews from critics and audiences. Diana was depicted literally running after Khan in the street and the script contained ridiculous dialogue (“If you can’t smell the fragrance, don’t come into the garden of love”). Just 8 per cent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a positive review.
Diana’s failure had a lasting impact: eight years later, many actresses were reluctant to consider accepting the lead role in Spencer. Spencer screenwriter Stephen Knight explained to The Daily Telegraph, “We kept hearing that someone loved the part, but she was worried about what the response might be. There was a sense that ‘If even Naomi Watts couldn’t do it…’”
Despite the failure of the film, Diana’s affair with Dr Khan served to inspire further fictional works. In Imagining Diana, a 2017 novel by Diane Clehane, Diana survives the 1997 car accident but is left disfigured, contemplating the impact of her new appearance on her status as the most photographed woman in the world. In the aftermath of the accident, she reconciles with Dr Khan and later mentors her future daughter-in-law Catherine Middleton.