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.