Image via Des Willie/Netflix

Everyone’s a dick in The Crown, except Diana

After years of half baked on-screen interpretations, Emma Corrin’s Diana is both eerily realistic and deeply flawed, as the People’s Princess was.

by Douglas Greenwood
16 November 2020, 4:25pm

Image via Des Willie/Netflix

The sympathetic framing of the most grandiose, privileged family on planet Earth has long made The Crown bait for rumoured royalists and Tory sympathisers alike. Netflix’s hit series, which has taken us inside the lives of the British Royal Family annually since 2016, has long been built around the idea of embellishing history, and creating lifelike characters from the charisma-void figures that have long sapped economic resources out of their homeland and colonised others at free will. The circumstances are no different for season four: set between 1979 and 1990, we still have the spats between Queen Elizabeth II’s bratty children, royalty and political figures, and toffee-stiff chinwags between the insensitively rich. Everybody here is an absolute dickhead. But finally, there’s one you can unproblematically root for: Lady Diana Spencer

To slip into the shoes of one of the most famous women to have walked the planet is no easy feat, not least because every one of those steps has been captured on film or chronicled in the pages of tabloid newspapers for decades. In the context of The Crown’s narrative, pre-marriage Diana was hounded by paparazzi as a teenage girl who’d caught the eye of a prince; the fairytale fantasy in motion. Post engagement, she would soon realise the antiquated policies of the Palace she was now a part of were stifling to a young woman. During her marriage to Charles, she gained grit, fighting back against an establishment that long expected her to step into line and adhere to the traditions that those before her had accepted without question. Then it descends into mayhem: a young woman inadvertently twisting a centuries-old institution around her finger and taking control of its outward-facing image; becoming its lead star.

These aren’t spoilers because much of it reflects real life, and her position as one of history’s most documented figures. But when we’ve seen these events on screen before -- say in the ill-fated Diana biopic that starred Naomi Watts in 2013, or the innumerable naff docu-dramas that have peppered late night television shows -- we fail to believe in the almost insurmountable mirage of someone trying to play Diana. Partly because, as with most Royals, the image of these people’s real faces -- both royalty and actors -- are so deeply etched into our brains that we can’t quite find the point at which they coalesce. It seldom extends beyond mere cosplay. 

But there’s something about the near-perfect mimicry of a woman so often mimicked poorly here that makes Emma Corrin’s Diana shine. The actor, a relative newcomer who, at 24, has the potential to captivate a world much in the same way her character did, might not look like Diana in a side-by-side comparison, but in her movements and emotional nuances, she may just be the greatest version of the Princess of Wales ever put to screen. 

When someone dies, there are echoes of their character (ones that are slightly detached from the person that existed in real life) that lodge themselves into your brain. In some ways, it’s the way their face forms when they’re embarrassed or sad or excited; the intonation of their voice; how their presence changed a room. Loaded with the pressure of expectation, it seems like Emma Corrin has done just enough research -- not veering overboard into performativity -- to nail down these aspects of Diana herself. Her eyes shift and lips purse when she’s playing shy; her honeyed tone and pointy Ts are married well, both astute and warming. But it’s the way she brings a huge sense of humanism to the Royal Family -- while also reserving all of those qualities for herself as the one Royal worth caring about -- that make her performance so remarkable. 

If you were at all concerned this series of The Crown would make you root for the existence of a monarchy, fear not: Diana is the one who wins here. Everybody has their flaws: there’s a motherliness shared between Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher and Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth that’s intended to give them a sensitive edge, but there’s no escaping the violently inhumane behaviour of Thatcher and the Queen’s subsequent condoning of it. Prince Charles, whose pettiness and chauvinism is played confidently by the usually charming Josh O’Connor, is nothing but an arsehole from episodes one through 10. Camilla Parker-Bowles remains a major public villain (as she should), and the gaggle of rich siblings, cousins and children that surround them all are all, for the most part, deeply ignorant. Episode seven, “Hereditary Principle” sees Princess Margaret entrust in her friend, the gay priest Dazzle Jennings, to investigate the estranged, disabled cousins of Queen Elizabeth II that were cast off to a mental institution in an attempt to protect the family’s reputation. It’s based almost wholly on fact.

And in the middle of it all, Diana exists as a crumbling voice of reason, who quickly realises the bullshit of the monarchy she’s married into. She’s dignified (we see her win over crowds on her and Charles’ first Australian tour, and hug an AIDS patient in a New York hospital) but deeply troubled. At Emma Corrin’s request, there are numerous scenes of disordered eating to reflect Diana’s own experiences with the disease. And the constant absence of Charles, conveniently spending time in the countryside to be closer to Camilla Parker-Bowles, means that she too turns to infidelity in the series. If there was ever a time to root for someone having an affair, this would be it for Diana, who has a grip on the most powerful family in the world rather than the other way around.

It all adds up to hugely compulsive television, elaborately produced and brilliantly aesthetically realised that, for the first time, doesn’t make you feel disgusting for watching a bunch of eye-wateringly privileged people go about their daily lives unbeknownst to the fact that the world is burning around them. Victims of recession and war and those on the forgotten fringes of society edge their way into the narrative here, but there is a victim too in Diana, who we leave at a crescendo point, before she returns in season five played by Elizabeth Debicki. Even if the bedrock of the monarchy feels fairly comfortable in 2020, this is a reminder of the fatalistic, unavoidable crack that was made from the inside by Diana herself. How long must we wait before that crack ruptures an illusion that will bring down the whole system for good?

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