clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Whatever Diana Means

Since the Princess of Wales’s death, art focused on her has rarely prioritized faithful re-creation. ‘Spencer’ is just the latest to seize on the symbolic potential of her story.

Entertainment One/Netflix/Topic Studios/Ringer illustration

“My whole life has been dramatic!” exclaims the Princess of Wales in 2013’s Diana, an Oliver Hirschbiegel biopic starring Naomi Watts in the title role.

On the verge of the release of Pablo Larraín’s biographical film Spencer, people from Diana’s inner circle have told the press that the princess would have been horrified by the Chilean director’s depiction of their late friend. Some have said that she didn’t see herself as a victim. But Larraín’s film, like all the other cinema and TV interpretations of the life of Miss Spencer, stands more as a reflection of the world’s perspective on Diana at a given moment in time. Over the years, that perspective has changed, with different aspects of Diana’s tragic—and indeed dramatic—life becoming more or less interesting to directors and audiences, and understood in different ways. But since her death, art focused on her has rarely prioritized faithful re-creation. Instead, the symbolic potential of her story has kept filmmakers interested.

After telling the story of Hitler’s last days in Downfall, it seemed as though Hirschbiegel wanted to wash himself of that dark character by turning to a much more tender and beloved personality. Again focusing on his protagonist’s most crucial, final moments, the director aimed to reveal all the potential and hope that went to waste when Diana died. The film’s opening sequence shows Diana as she exits her hotel room to get into the vehicle in which she will soon perish, the mood already turning sinister; Watts inevitably brings to the role the same pain and horror of her performance in Mulholland Drive, as Hirschbiegel himself leans Lynchian. A canted camera follows Diana in a dark hotel corridor then stops, and the princess soon turns around to face us, as though she’d felt a presence over her shoulder. Is that fate catching up with her?

At this point, the film goes back in time to reveal the ways Diana attempted to move on from her unhappy royal marriage, three years after her separation from Prince Charles. But that presence in the corridor and this non-chronological storytelling seems to suggest that nothing she could have done would have saved her from doom. On the question of who condemned her to such fate, the film offers no answers, focusing not on Diana’s death, but rather on how very alive she was. Hirschbiegel isn’t going for controversy but rather pure pathos.

To accentuate the cruelty of this loss, Diana, based on the novel Diana: Her Last Love by Kate Snell, puts the spotlight on both the princess’s altruistic values and her romantic rebirth, as though to give her back the title of fairy-tale princess that she lost in her ugly separation from the prince. Liberated, Diana walks barefoot in her apartment and spends her time getting involved in humanitarian causes, using her fame to raise awareness and funds for different organizations. Driving through Bosnia, she asks to stop the car when she sees a weeping woman in a cemetery. She approaches the starstruck mother in mourning, and hugs her sincerely—end scene. Such uncomplicated and relentless praise for Diana’s efforts can’t help but feel forced. Certainly, her dedication to making herself useful was admirable, and her actions did have powerful effects, but this insistence on her goodness feels didactic and even crude, as if the audience needs convincing that Diana didn’t deserve to die in a car crash.

Parallel to these philanthropic events, Diana also begins a whirlwind romance with Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), a London surgeon she meets by chance. As fate (and drama) would have it, what she cherishes most about him is what makes their love ultimately impossible: He doesn’t see her as a royal but as her own woman, and refuses to live in the spotlight beside her. Their shared altruism drives them apart rather than brings them together—she uses fame to help people, and he needs his privacy to save lives. The fairy tale has a sad ending, as though the isolation of her stardom had killed not only her, but real love itself.

Turning Diana’s last few years into a tragic tale about the impossibility of love and charity becomes more understandable when Diana is placed in the context of the princess’s continuing story. Two years before the film came out, her eldest son, Prince William, married Kate Middleton, a union that many saw as a triumph of love, justice, and perhaps even the royal family. Middleton quickly followed in the footsteps of the mother-in-law she never knew, adorning dresses by Diana’s favorite designers and visiting NGOs around the world. Diana had created the template for modern princesshood, and in 2013, her demise felt less important than her generosity, which continued to resonate through Kate.

But a lot has happened in the years since that royal wedding, and the public’s perception of the British crown has evolved. Diana’s life and death have been sublimated into a different narrative, and her status as a feminist icon has become more complicated. Peter Morgan’s series The Crown, which started airing in 2016, reflects these new sensibilities. Although the show comes with a disclaimer that its content is fictionalized, the queen’s history is openly problematized and mythologized. Morgan is able to have his cake and eat it too: With each episode costing around $13 million, he can both please our eyes and fantasies of sovereignty by re-creating the luxuriousness of Buckingham Palace and the scope of iconic historical events, and satisfy our skepticism toward the monarchy by revisiting its history from a more critical and modern standpoint.

When Diana appears in the fourth season, played by Emma Corrin, this tension between fantasy and reality gets even stronger. The mythical goodness that Watts impersonated is long gone, and a more ambiguous idea of Diana is put forth. At once a regular gal and a woman with a great destiny, she becomes the crux of this family’s history. In her very first scene, a completely fictional re-creation of her first meeting with Charles, Diana is disguised as a tree for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as if to suggest that Miss Spencer had not only a refreshing childlikeness about her, but also was a “natural woman” in touch with what is organic, real, and good. A later scene shows her hunting with Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) when she visits Balmoral Castle, where the family is holidaying and openly testing her for her suitability to Charles and, eventually, the throne. Crouching in the bushes beside her soon-to-be father-in-law, she has the correct intuition about the direction of the wind and helps him shoot down a wounded deer. Her natural instinct impresses, and even her name is right: Diana was the goddess of hunting (as well as fertility). But this scene could have a double meaning: Diana’s intuition and spontaneity will serve her well while she remains on the family’s side, but if she steps out of line, they could hunt her down, too. The fourth season also anticipates the multiplicity of identities that the media would project onto Lady Di. Alone in her new princely dwellings, a bored Diana puts on roller skates and her Walkman and ventures into the many empty rooms, listening to Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film.” The lyrics, describing the suicidal thoughts of a fashion model, not-so-subtly hint at the way the paparazzi would stalk the princess, while the framing of Diana in her casual 1980s clothes and teenage skates emphasize how “normal” she was.

The casting of Corrin is itself telling: She effortlessly captures the princess’s mannerisms, but more importantly, as a newcomer with few other credits to her name, she’s a clean slate on which we can project different ideas of Diana. Yet at the same time, The Crown’s Diana herself is given insight about her future: She unsuccessfully tries to talk to the queen about her doubts before the wedding. This Diana seems both at the mercy of some dark and inescapable destiny, and armed with enough agency to at least know that things aren’t looking that good for her. The series both perpetuates the mythology around Diana, and sees her through a more feminist perspective, giving her some degree of control to make her seem less helpless and more inspiring.

By contrast, Spencer takes both a more decisive and abstract approach by firmly anchoring Diana’s story in fate and out of time. Although the film takes place over a brief period during the Christmas holidays of 1991, when Diana arguably decided to leave Charles, the story works on a much grander and more allegorical level. The question in the film isn’t whether anything could have been prevented, or whether history needs to be rewritten to account for the ways Diana did try to save herself. Instead, Larraín and writer Steven Knight wonder how Diana herself felt and saw her life.

The mystery surrounding this particular time when the royal family reunited at the Sandringham Estate allows Larraín and Knight to let their imaginations run wild and tell the story they wish to tell, with more flexibility around historical facts. Rather than using this opportunity to enact countless imagined and potentially cathartic confrontations between the princess and her family, Larraín instead focuses on empty moments, when Diana is alone and pensive, avoiding her relatives. His attentive camera scrutinizes her when she is unguarded, as though to find the real human being behind the persona. In this way, Spencer feels like the antithesis to Diana: There is no concern with her goodness, her romantic life, or her public face. When her dresser, friend, and confidante Maggie (Sally Hawkins) tells Diana to use her beauty and fame as weapons, as the princess is shown doing in Hirschbiegel’s film, she seems to be completely missing the mark, because this Diana has other concerns. As the use of her maiden name in the title suggests, Larraín is looking for the feelings that Diana the person may have felt as her marriage and her relationship with her family broke down, and as she turned to self-harm, bulimia, and restless (or at least un-princess-like) behavior. And what he finds under these facts and this facade is a dark pit of despair and depression. Those solitary moments don’t so much offer Diana relief as they further prove to her that she is lost and utterly alone. Kristen Stewart may not have seemed like a very credible casting choice at first, but her nervous temperament that belies a raw tenderness, as well as the fact that the actress herself has experienced aggressive attention from paparazzi, fit perfectly with this view of Diana as a woman wanting to break free but not knowing how.

To make sense of her life, Larraín’s Diana looks to the past. She finds she can relate to Anne Boleyn, and worries that history is only repeating itself: The discarded wife will have her head chopped off, again. While this parallel may imply that the royal family essentially killed Diana, it does something more powerful, too. Diana is made eternal and atemporal: Her story is, again, a myth—not one of pure grace gone to waste, but rather of interminable suffering and entrapment, recurring through history and through her own history. Ever since her childhood, where she grew up just next door to Sandringham, she feels as though her fate has been sealed and has sealed her in. In this echoing, Diana finds herself running in place. A montage shows her at different ages, sprinting. As she tells her children one evening, the past, the present, and the future are one.

A biopic explicitly presenting Diana as the ultimate symbol of doom and, slightly more indirectly, of the royal family’s obsolescence and nefariousness, would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. But a new once-potential-princess has since come along to break the cycle. Unlike Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex was not able to reenact the happy bits from Diana when she married Harry. The public’s (potentially racist) dislike of her and an alleged lack of support from the royal circle meant that she would never be given the same respect, no matter how much activism she did or Diana-inspired gowns she wore. In March 2020, Harry and Meghan shocked the world by stepping down as working members of the British royal family. And the tension erupted in March 2021 when the couple talked with Oprah Winfrey in an interview. This tell-all, while extremely polarizing, marked a shift as Prince Harry himself, seeing the way his wife was being mistreated by his family, echoed one of Spencer’s core themes: “My biggest concern was history repeating itself and I’ve said that before on numerous occasions, very publicly. And what I was seeing was history repeating itself.”

Not everyone is ready to remember the princess as a tragic heroine, however. One unfortunate result of this new, more ambiguous understanding of Diana is Diana: The Musical, filmed onstage for Netflix prior to its Broadway premiere. As we follow the princess from her meeting with Charles to her death, she and everyone else in her life sings out descriptions of what is happening to them at every moment. The lyrics barely rhyme and the language is poor, but more disturbingly still, the narrative seems chaotic, torn between tragedy and farce, doom and glamour. The whiplash would almost make sense if it were meant to translate Diana’s state of mind, but the princess (played by Jeanna de Waal) is always smiling, looking at her life with a hopefulness that is repeatedly contradicted by reality. Again, her goodness is emphasized over all else, with an added dose of girlboss feminism to make her ever more modern. At the end, while she walks away in a thunder of camera flashes (she’s dead), the cast belts out the mysterious (and not at all poetic) sentence, “The people who change the world are the ones you think will change the world.” Trying to portray Diana as a revolutionary figure who made the world a better place feels crass, not because she didn’t help change aspects of contemporary politics, but because she paid too great a price for it.

It is a natural human instinct to want to make sense of history, and the stories we tell about our past do shape our future. Diana challenged the narrative ever since she entered the royal family, and would still have been an interesting figure had she carried on living. Perhaps her terrible death, and the pain she went through in an unhappy marriage and under the scrutiny of the world, make this impulse of storytelling and myth-making stronger. Nowadays, it is tempting to grant her not just some degree of agency (which she certainly had), but even the gift of clairvoyance, of knowing her place in history and in legend—because that way, she becomes more than just an unhappy woman that the world mistreated. Yet perhaps now, she deserves to be seen as just that: someone who doesn’t have to mean everything or, really, anything to us. Someone who can be allowed to rest.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.