When it comes to portraying The People’s Princess, Emma Corrin reigns (so far) since she won a Golden Globe, SAG, and Critics’ Choice Television Award for the fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown (2020). Since then, two more Dianas entered the scene: Kristen Stewart in the big screen biopic Spencer and Jeanna de Waal in the filmed play Diana: The Musical.
Both of the 2021 offerings take a unique approach to the well-worn subject. Director Pablo Larraín’s highly interpretive film Spencer plays loose with the facts as it presents a self-described “fable from a true tragedy” that fictionally follows Diana over a three-day holiday in 1991, while Diana: The Musical uses song to briefly touch on the Princess’s milestones from 1981 to 1997.
Because the latter has a lot to cover, there’s not enough time to expound on the events. By contrast, the former takes a style over substance approach that feels like a Chanel commercial. As a result, neither production has much to say. However, they do provide a good dose of camp: Diana for its pedestrian playfulness and Spencer for its artsy pretentiousness.
At its worse, Spencer metaphorically compares the Princess to roadkill. If audiences miss the visual references to dead birds, Stewart’s character actually says she’s like a pheasant, “beautiful but not very bright.” That goes double for the film which uses Claire Mathon’s pretty cinematography to depict Diana dining on a Wilma Flinstone-sized pearl necklace in defiance of Prince Charles (Jack Farthing).
Although she is contemplating leaving her husband, Steven Knight’s underwritten screenplay gives the couple few exchanges. Instead, Diana whines to herself, complains to the staff that the castle is too cold, and speaks to the ghost of Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), with whom she melodramatically compares herself.
Similarly, yet more whimsically, de Waal’s Diana has imaginary conversations about love with her step-grandmother and “Duel of Hearts” authoress Barbara Cartland (Judy Kaye). Presuming Diana believed in Cartland’s romance novels explains why she set her cap at the Prince and stubbornly stayed the course after realizing he was in love with another.
But unlike Stewart, de Waal doesn’t play Diana as a victim. She’s a fighter who confronts her husband’s lover Camilla (Erin Davie) in a cringingly-bad boxing number called “The Main Event.” Later, she belts out “The Dress,” which includes the line, “When a girl needs to express her proper state of distress, revenge looks best in a f**k you dress.” Cole Porter, this ain’t.
More rock opera than traditional Broadway show, the production performs David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s pop metal tunes with tinny orchestration and shrill vocals. The ballads are easier on the ears, mostly because they echo past hits. “Happiness” sounds like The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” (1970), “As I Love You” mimics Paul Anka’s “Times Of Your Life” (1975), and “An Officer’s Wife” reverberates Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” (1984).
The most obvious appropriation is “The Words Came Pouring Out,” a blatant rip-off of “Let My Love Open the Door” (1980) sung in a Pete Townshend-like falsetto by Nathan Lucrezio as Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton. With such sketchy song arrangements, pandemic delays and disses from theater critics, Diana: The Musical only ran for one month on stage.
The filmed version also did poorly since it raked in nine Golden Raspberry nominations, more than any other 2021 release. Yet despite scoring a Worst Actress Razzie nod, de Waal looks and sounds more like Princess Di than the Oscar-nominated Stewart.
Seemingly self-conscious of her American accent, Stewart frantically whispers most of her lines in an ineffective affected voice. It’s very unnatural, and a far cry from her underappreciated portrayal of rocker Joan Jett in The Runaways (2010). Alas, actresses are rewarded for going outside of their comfort zone, even when they’re miscast.
Fortunately, it appears seasons five and six of The Crown (2022-2023) ascribe to the theory that “directing is 90 percent casting” and have found someone who convincingly fits the bill. Enter Elizabeth Debicki, the next and hopefully last Diana.