Contradictions, charisma and a well-known story: Why it’s so hard to become Diana on screen

November 7, 2021
Contradictions, charisma and a well-known story: Why it's so hard to become Diana on screen
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So many have tried. Yet few have found critical success in their efforts to bring the character of Diana, Princess of Wales, to the screen — big or small.

The latest attempt arrived in movie theatres Friday, with actor Kristen Stewart taking the lead role in Spencer, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s cinematic recreation of a weekend Diana spent at the Queen’s Sandringham estate three decades ago.

In some quarters, Stewart’s portrayal is generating Oscar buzz and rave reviews from those who find her dazzling and “masterful” in the role. 

In other quarters, royal observers see a “cruel” and gratuitous portrayal they say will cause only anger and hurt for Diana’s sons, princes William and Harry. (Other reviews fall somewhere in the middle — one called it “enjoyably strange.”)

In ways, it has been ever thus when it comes to portrayals of the charismatic and complicated celebrity royal, whose vulnerability offered an emotional connection for many who watched from outside palace walls.

Stewart has been receiving Oscar buzz for her portrayal of Diana. (Pablo Larraín)

Screenwriters, playwrights and novelists face a number of challenges trying to dramatize Diana’s life and legacy, Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said in an interview.

Few details have escaped public scrutiny

First up is just how familiar the major events of her life are.

“There are many people who can remember exactly where they were when they watched Charles and Diana’s wedding on television or where they were when they received the news that Diana died in a car accident in 1997,” said Harris.

“It’s very difficult to create dramatic momentum and suspense when the major events are so well-known.”

And then there are the differing versions we’ve heard regarding critical moments Diana faced over the years.

“When it comes to Diana’s personal life, there are contradictory sources,” said Harris. 

“Both Charles and Diana spoke to the press about the breakdown of their marriage and shared their own perspectives. Their respective sets of friends had their own perspectives, and memories differ about certain moments that took place behind palace doors.”

Diana and Prince Charles look in different directions during a Korean War commemorative service in November 1992. The following month, their separation was announced, and they were divorced in 1996, a year before her death. (Reuters)

Spencer imagines a Christmas weekend in 1991 as Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles was crumbling.

“We took all of the liberties,” Stewart told CBC’s Tesa Arcilla. “We really had this beautiful terrain with which to dance and dream, sort of revive this woman for a moment in order to kind of give her a chance to speak for herself.

“It was fun to be able to pull back the curtain and sort of dream about what it must’ve been like.”

WATCH | Why Spencer is getting mixed reviews:

Why there’s mixed reaction about a new Princess Diana movie

The movie Spencer is receiving criticism from some Princess Diana fans who say it leans too hard into the more tragic and unflattering aspects of her life. But actress Kristen Stewart, who plays Diana, says that’s actually the point of the movie, and many women may see their lives reflected on the big screen. 2:31

Movie will resonate with women: consultant

It’s a portrayal that will resonate with many, says personal branding consultant Diana Young, who was named for Diana and shares her birthday of July 1.

“I think that many women may connect with this content covered in the movie,” Young told Arcilla in an interview outside Kensington Palace.  

“We all go through our own personal challenges and seeing … Princess Diana going through what many women may potentially be going through today, it just kind of makes her feel a little bit more human.”

Young also thinks Spencer might offer viewers a new perspective.

“We all have this view of Princess Diana…. She touched so many different people in different ways,” said Young. 

“I’m sure once you’ve watched that movie, you’re likely to have a completely different perspective, because this movie does aim to kind of really touch on some of the more grittier parts of her life.”

Diana hugs and plays with an HIV-positive baby in Faban Hostel in San Paulo, Brazil, on April 24, 1991. (Dave Caulkin/The Associated Press)

Hits and misses

Spencer is just the latest in a very long list of attempts to dramatize Diana’s life.

Many have found little favour with critics — whether it was the much-maligned 2013 movie Diana, starring Naomi Watts, or, more recently, the roundly dumped-upon Diana, The Musical, which is streaming on Netflix and officially opens on Broadway on Nov. 17.

“[The musical] does attempt going from Diana’s engagement all the way to her death, so it attempts the biopic format, which is rarely successful,” said Harris.

While it’s clear some research did go into the script — there are quotes from speeches Diana gave — other lines hit a more awkward note, such as when she compares a classical music concert to an “endless telethon” and goes on to say she wishes the performer were Elton John. (At least it rhymes.)

“The lyrics are clunky to the degree that some people assumed that this must have been written as a satire or as a parody,” said Harris. (It wasn’t.)

There are instances, however, when the actor playing Diana has received rave reviews. Emma Corrin won a Golden Globe for her portrayal in Season 4 of Netflix’s drama The Crown, although the season itself ran into controversy over the script, particularly for its portrayal of Charles.

WATCH | Why Season 4 of The Crown sparked controversy:

The Crown faces criticism for its take on ’80s royal history

Season 4 of The Crown has proven popular with viewers, but because it is based on relatively recent history it’s facing more criticism for distorting real-life events. 2:16

As hard as it may be to dramatize Diana, it’s likely movies, plays, novels and other artistic endeavours will continue to offer up interpretations, feeding a fascination that shows little sign of ebbing. 

“If you die so young … you’re preserved in aspic in the way that Marilyn Monroe was,” British public relations expert Mark Borkowski said in an interview.

But perhaps as time marches on, the way in which Diana is portrayed will change as audiences no longer have their own memories of the high-profile times of her life.

“As more decades pass … we may see more biopics as a younger generation is interested in her life but doesn’t necessarily remember where they were for each of those moments,” said Harris.

On the environmental front

A picture and quotation taken from Queen Elizabeth’s address to COP26 delegates appears at Piccadilly Circus in London on Nov. 3, 2021. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

Throughout the early days of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, senior members of the Royal Family were there to meet and greet world leaders and continue their push for action in the fight against climate change.

One member of the family wasn’t able to be there after all, but Queen Elizabeth did appear via video, urging world leaders to “rise above the politics of the moment” and work to create a “safer, stabler future” for the planet.

Elizabeth’s video message came after she opted out of a personal appearance following advice from her doctors to rest and an overnight stay in hospital two weeks ago.

Flanked by a photo of her late husband, Prince Philip, in a cloud of butterflies, Elizabeth spoke of how the environment was a subject close to his heart and her pride in the fact that their son Charles, and their grandson, William, share the interest.

Such family references aren’t necessarily common when the Queen speaks publicly.

“Even though not there in person, this was a surprisingly personal message from the Queen,” BBC royal correspondent Sean Coughlan wrote on the network’s website.

Queen Elizabeth delivers a video message, which was played during a welcoming reception on Nov. 1, 2021, as part of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. (Buckingham Palace via The Associated Press)

In Charles’s speeches at COP26, he reflected on his years pushing for climate action and looked to the future.

“I can’t believe how many times I’ve made speeches like this all over the world during the past 40 years and to no avail,” he said during his speech at the World Leaders Action on Forests and Land Use event.

“But I can only pray that this session will provide us with a real sense of the seriously urgent, systemic shifts that need to happen to deliver on our vision, and I urge you all to take forward whatever we discuss today with implacable resolve and determination to make things happen on the ground.”

Push to rewild Royal Family’s estates

One environmental message some had hoped to hear from the royals ahead of COP26 didn’t materialize.

The U.K. campaign group Wild Card has been urging the Royal Family to rewild its lands and bring thousands of hectares back to the way they were before humans imposed themselves on the natural landscape, and had been hoping to see some action or intention on that front. 

“There is a real risk of the Royal Family’s commendable green leadership seeming empty and hollow if their ambitious words are not matched with ambitious action in their own considerably large backyard,” Wild Card co-founder Joel Scott-Halkes said via email.

The Queen’s Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has a vast landscape that some ecologists say would be a prime candidate for rewilding. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The group was “thrilled to hear the Queen’s brave and forthright words on the duty of world leaders at COP26 to protect future generations, something that rewilding is ideally suited to help achieve,” he said. 

“The Queen’s words on the climate crisis are so clearly authentic and heartfelt that we can only assume she is kept unaware of how dismally nature-depleted her own vast estates really are.”

The senior royals’ appearance at COP26 “powerfully demonstrates that environmental action has the potential to unite the whole world behind a common cause,” Scott-Halkes said.

“However, the messenger is as important as the message, and the state of the royals’ vast estates seriously risks undermining their cause in the eyes of world leaders,” he said.

“If diplomats of the world go home thinking that Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall estate, with its dangerously low six per cent tree coverage, is an appropriate response to the climate crisis, then we’re all doomed.”

Light duties and a weekend away

Queen Elizabeth is widely reported to be spending this weekend at her Sandringham estate northeast of London, having been flown there by helicopter from Windsor Castle. 

The trip to Sandringham comes as the 95-year-old continues to rest following doctors’ advice, an overnight stay in hospital for tests and the cancellation of two high-profile trips (to Northern Ireland and COP26).

Still, she’s done some light duties, and in addition to recording her message to the summit, had a video call with the 2020 winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

“I’m very glad to have the chance to see you, if only mechanically, this morning,” she told David Constantine the other day.

Throughout the pandemic, the Queen took quite comfortably to video sessions but returned with apparent eagerness to numerous public, in-person appearances in October.

Now, however, it’s possible there may be more virtual meetings on her agenda.

“We may well see a return to more of the video conferencing from the COVID-19 pandemic that enabled the Queen to have quite a busy schedule without quite as much physical strain,” Harris said.

Still, there’s one in-person event she wants to attend on Nov. 14.

“There are certain events in the royal calendar that are very important to the Queen, and she will be there if at all possible, and Remembrance Sunday in the United Kingdom is an example of that,” said Harris.

Royally quotable

“How many more women must be harassed, raped or murdered before we truly unite to forge a violence-free world?”

— Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, calls on all men to be involved in the fight against sexual violence in what the Telegraph described as her “most pointed and passionate speech to date.”

Royal reads

  1. A U.S. judge has set a January hearing date for Prince Andrew’s lawyers in the sexual abuse lawsuit against him, a lawsuit those lawyers called “baseless” as they asked a New York court to throw it out. [The Guardian, CBC]

  2. The first major royal visit outside the U.K. in two years will take Prince Charles and Camilla to Jordan and Egypt later this month. The four-day trip will include visits to holy sites and interfaith events, along with a focus on climate change and the importance of girls’ education. [BBC]

  3. Being a descendant of a medieval monarch may be more common than you think. [BBC]

  4. Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, were the targets of a co-ordinated hate campaign on Twitter, according to a report by an analytics provider for the social media platform. [The Washington Post]

  5. Former Japanese princess Mako, who gave up money and her title as she married for love, isn’t the first member of the Japanese royal family to be reported to be suffering from mental stress. [CBC, Time]

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