It’s certainly not surprising then that film and television have got in on the action of dramatising Diana’s tumultuous life. Since 1982, 12 actors have played the princess for various TV movies, drama series and big-screen appearances.
Naomi Watts’ turn in Diana – a 2013 biopic, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with a screenplay adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from Kate Snell’s 2001 book, Diana: Her Last Love – was praised but the film overall was mauled over its dodgy script and soap opera direction.
Emma Corrin won a Golden Globe for her performance in The Crown season four, though the royal family and friends were allegedly pretty upset at Prince Charles’ depiction, calling it “trolling on a Hollywood budget”.
Netflix released a filmed Broadway performance of Diana: the Musical, an awkwardly superficial retelling of her story that leans heavily into the poor little rich girl heroine characterisation.
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Now we have Kristen Stewart donning the short blonde wig for a cinematic outing. But this latest film, Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín and written by Steven Knight, had me wishing the world would just let the woman rest in peace.
Set in December 1991, the story takes place at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, where the royal family has gathered for the annual Christmas festivities. By this time, the marriage of Diana and Charles is only survived on paper as rumours of affairs and inevitable divorce become tabloid fodder and cause more friction within the household.
Diana is certainly presented as an outsider; she is constantly late, tries to avoid taking part in all of the traditions and becomes increasingly flustered by the regimented expectations that come with being a member of this family. There’s not a meal that she can sit through without escaping to the toilet and throwing up in the most melodramatic way.
Bulimia is a serious issue, but the film’s depiction of this eating disorder is often grotesque and over-the-top. Many critics have described the film as a psychological horror and I don’t disagree, but it is more than frustrating that Stewart’s constantly breathless, ridiculously overwrought performance, to the point of parody, has Diana appearing to be completely unhinged.
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To its credit, the film opens with the statement “a fable from a true tragedy” to try and distance itself from the more specific “biopic” label.
Spencer is a complete work of fiction, imagining what three days at Sandringham might have played out like given the trajectory of Diana’s split from the palace. But in presenting a version of the late princess that is nothing short of a hot mess causing chaos amongst seemingly more reasonable people, it reinforces all the worst criticisms that have been levelled against her, and she’s not even around to defend herself.
If Spencer is supposed to be a sort of tribute to the memory of a tragic woman victimised by an archaic industry I’d truly hate to see what a condemnation would have looked like.
Stewart said in a recent interview with The Guardian, “There wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t like: ‘What does she think about this? I wonder if she can see me?’” Well, if I was Diana, I’d probably be rolling in my grave.
Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic.
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