Spencer and the ever-transfixing mystery of Princess Diana

Chilean director Larraín, whose wider filmography might be considered esoteric, has gone on record as having made Spencer because he wanted to make a film his mum would appreciate. But why does he think Diana – as a cultural figure, a pop icon, a mythology – resonates so much with her? “Well, I’m not sure,” he tells BBC Culture. “That’s the thing. Because, of course, when I grew up in Chile and saw my mum become very interested, I was a little boy. And then I realised that she was just one of millions [of Diana fans] around the world. When [Diana] died in ’97, I realised that the world was grieving.” It was after Jackie, his similarly challenging 2016 biopic about the titular Kennedy, née Bouvier, later Onassis, that he decided to make Spencer, diving into a deep research process around the late Princess – including reading a lot of articles from the BBC, he notes. “I think, culturally speaking, she’s one of the best-known people of contemporary culture. And at the same time, is the most mysterious person ever. That paradox… is just wonderful for film, and for art.”

That so many filmmakers, documentarians, television commissioners, authors, artists, performers, and musical theatre composers have tried to tackle the Diana story, and indeed myth, serves to suggest that Larraín is right. Certainly, whether owing to that dramatically fruitful paradox or another impetus, she has inspired innumerable works of popular culture, from visual art (see Ian Rank-Broadley’s statue of Diana, erected earlier this year at her former Kensington Palace home and portraying her as a deific being) to theatre and film to TV: at least a dozen actresses have portrayed her on screen over the years, including, to most acclaim, Kristen Stewart in Spencer and Emma Corrin in series four of The Crown.

On the other end of the quality scale, among the various straight-to-TV biopics, Hirschbiegel’s film, starring Naomi Watts as the Princess, is arguably the biggest turkey of them all. “Diana doesn’t even need to be compared to any other films to be identified as a failure,” says film critic Guy Lodge, “it was just a perfect storm of appalling writing, a muddled directorial perspective and actors completely adrift in the confusion”. More celebrated in its tackiness, meanwhile, has been the recent Diana: The Musical (2021), the low-rent Broadway show placed in stasis by Covid-19 but released in a filmed version on Netflix last month to gleeful derision.

Among its many absurdities, it finds itself beholden to one of the more erroneous Diana myths peddled by popular culture: that her early courtship with Prince Charles was a rags-to-riches fairytale. This, despite the fact the Spencer family boasts both a multi-million-pound fortune and a multi-generational aristocratic lineage. “It’s wholly untrue [to think of Diana as working class]” Lodge says, “but it plays neatly into the mythos” – a mythos that was established within popular culture from the moment Diana entered the public consciousness.

The beginning of a cultural obsession

As early as 1982, just a year after her wedding to Prince Charles, US television networks turned their attention to the burgeoning Diana narrative with Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story. A docudrama produced by ABC and released in September of that year, it superficially framed their early courtship within the fairytale framework – culminating in a reenactment of the ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral. Then, just three days later, CBS debuted their own dramatisation of the nuptials, aptly titled The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, which was even more of a saccharine, blemish-free affair, though a ratings hit. Tom Shales of the Washington Post compared the latter negatively to the ABC film, describing it as “slack-jawed heraldic voyeurism incapable of, and apparently uninterested in, transforming remote news figures into believable mortals.” However even the former, with its quasi-regal brass flourishes, majestical pomp and fantastical gawp, is a product of brazen Anglophilia, seeing the monarchy as if through a child’s glistening eyes.

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