“The Crown” Presents the Last Days of Princess Diana

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In the sixth and final season of “The Crown,” Peter Morgan, the show’s writer and creator, returns to where he began. That start is not the first season of Morgan’s epic royal chronicle, which was released in November of 2016 and opened with the then Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip, in 1947. The origins of “The Crown” go back a decade earlier, to 2006, with the movie “The Queen,” written by Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, which starred Helen Mirren as the monarch, and was set in the immediate aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, after a car crash during a stay in Paris, in late August of 1997.

The movie dramatized the days—then still relatively fresh in the nation’s memory—during which the streets around Buckingham Palace became a zone of unprecedented public mourning. Floral tributes were piled densely against the palace’s gate, forming a moat of cellophane and decomposing petals. Men and women wept openly on the Mall. Meanwhile, the Queen and her immediate family stayed at a distance, at Balmoral, in Scotland, to which they had removed earlier in the summer for their traditional vacation of walking, stalking, shooting, and picnicking in the frequently inclement Highland weather. At the time, public dismay at the Queen’s lack of public display grew into hostility, and even anger: “Show Us You Care!” brayed the headline in the Daily Express, usually a reliably monarchist tabloid. Eventually, the Queen acceded to pressure that she and the rest of the family should return to London from the privacy of Scotland. She, too, walked among the bouquets and the pressing crowds, and, a week after Diana’s death, delivered a televised special address to the nation—for only the second time in her reign, the first being at the start of the first Gulf War. Her message, if not exactly overflowing with empathy, paid tribute to Diana as a mother and as “someone who made many, many people happy.”

Morgan’s innovation in 2006 was to tell the story from the point of view of the Queen herself—or, at least, her imagined point of view, the actual Queen not having given her own account of events. A counterpoint was provided by Tony Blair, the innovating New Labour Prime Minister, played by Michael Sheen, who served in the film as the Queen’s conduit to understanding how Diana was cherished in death as in life as “the People’s Princess”—in Blair’s own apt phrase. Morgan treated his version of the Queen with the empathy that the real Queen had failed to demonstrate in the moment. The movie showed how apparent heartlessness—the initial failure to fly a flag at half-staff over Buckingham Palace, for example—was, in fact, an adherence to protocol from which it was, at first, unthinkable for the Queen to deviate. Diana was no longer an H.R.H., but was instead a private citizen. There was no precedent for how an ex-Queen-to-be should be regarded—let alone mourned—by the Royal Family. In “The Queen,” Morgan dramatized how the place of a monarch in a constitutional monarchy, like that in the U.K., exists only as an elaborate confection of protocol and precedent: if that framework is dispensed with, the whole structure may come tumbling down. The opening scene of the film, which shows Elizabeth II discussing the forthcoming general election with an artist who is painting her portrait, served to remind viewers that the monarch does not vote, it being nominally her or his government that is being elected. Monarchs cannot be ordinary citizens, as—over in Paris—the decapitated ghost of Louis Capet might remind us.

In the new season of “The Crown,” Morgan has switched the perspective. The events of August, 1997, are no longer seen primarily through the eyes of the Queen. Instead, he has foregrounded the irresistible Diana as she spends what turn out to be her final few weeks subject to a treacherous alchemy: being transmuted from the future Queen into the novel form of a peculiarly rarified ordinary citizen. She holidays first with, and then without, her sons, William and Harry, in the plutocrat’s playground of St. Tropez, aboard a yacht owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, the Egyptian-born owner of Harrods and the Ritz Paris. The setting—glittering sea, brilliant sun, luxurious vessel, squealing water fights—could hardly offer a greater contrast to the chilly environs of Balmoral, with its dowdy, tweedy routine of heathland-stomping and fauna-murdering. And Diana herself, who is played with uncanny verisimilitude by Elizabeth Debicki, is, after the grim miseries of earlier seasons, at last comfortable in her own skin—which, as a variety of elegant bathing suits reveal, is as gloriously, uniformly, expensively golden as the crown that materializes in the show’s title sequence.

Focussing on Diana in 2006, even if Morgan had tried to, would not have been possible. As Mirren said in an interview at the time, “It’s a hot potato in England—you cannot go anywhere near this subject without being under the most intense kind of scrutiny.” Diana was the hottest potato of all; but times have changed, and tubers have cooled, which means that Morgan can take his second run at the subject from a different orientation. At the outset of the first season of “The Crown,” in an interview in this magazine with Michael Schulman, Morgan noted that the Queen herself was not the easiest of characters to animate. “She’s not a natural choice for a writer, being a monosyllabic woman of limited intelligence and imagination,” he said, surely aware that by undertaking the entire project he had scotched any eventual hope of a knighthood and was therefore free to be as candid, or even as downright rude, as he wished. Morgan went on, “As a writer, I would naturally have preferred her to be a sort of Tony Soprano figure, who’s sort of mood-changey and volatile.”

Morgan’s Tony Soprano finally showed up in Season 4, in the form of Lady Diana Spencer—the virginal blueblood, twelve years Prince Charles’s junior, to whom fell the unenviable fate of becoming the Princess of Wales. From the outset, “The Crown” did not flinch from depicting Diana’s volatility. Early on in the fourth season, the recently betrothed Lady Di, played by Emma Corrin, was seen binge-eating her way through a palace fridge, then fleeing to a bathroom and retching into a royal toilet. “The Crown” ’s eating-disorder episodes were controversial, and graphic enough to warrant a trigger warning. But they showed nothing that the Princess herself had not been admirably willing to uncover. When asked directly about her struggles with bulimia in a BBC interview in 1995, she replied that she had suffered from the condition for several years. “You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable,” she said.

By the show’s fifth season, the portrait of Diana, now played by Debicki, was becoming more complicated. Diana’s disclosures of her private mental-health struggles were, Morgan’s depiction suggested, undertaken as strategic moves in yet another struggle—a battle for public-relations predominance over her estranged husband Charles, and the larger Royal Family. In Season 5, the Diana whom Morgan put on the screen was extraordinarily charismatic, and extraordinarily like her original. (Richard Kay, a veteran royal reporter who was close to Diana, wrote in the Daily Mail that Debicki “possesses the Princess’s natural statuesque grace, mischievousness and beauty. She has both her mannerisms and her voice. Indeed, closing my eyes I found myself imagining that it was my friend Diana speaking.”) But the Diana of Season 5 was also manipulative, and addicted to the attention and the drama that once had been so undesirable to her. The famous BBC interview, conducted by the journalist Martin Bashir—in which Diana delivered her “there were three of us in that marriage” indictment of Charles and his then mistress, now Queen Camilla—was, as later revealed, obtained by appallingly duplicitous means. “The Crown” depicted Bashir’s duplicity; but it also suggested that Diana was not simply Bashir’s victim. She was using the most powerful tools at her disposal to make her case against the most powerful family in the land.

Some critics of Season 5 suggested that, in portraying Diana as vengeful, Morgan had decided to throw his lot in with the establishment, presenting the man who is now King Charles III as a beleaguered individual who had been put into an impossible situation, and showing Diana taking the shape of that impossibility. In Season 6, however, the onscreen Diana has evolved once more. The first four episodes of the new season, which lead up to and include Diana’s death, present her as sad, knowing, regretful, even forgiving. When Charles, played by Dominic West, picks up William and Harry from Diana’s custody for what we know will be the last time, he asks, affectionately, “Even though we weren’t brilliant at being married, can we be brilliant at . . . all this?” “I think so,” Diana says with damp eyes but reciprocal affection. She adds, sadly, “She didn’t get to keep the man of her dreams, but the friend of her dreams.” It’s still not exactly a divorce made in heaven—the two camps keep warring in the tabloids—but it’s a suggestion that a more congenial accommodation might eventually be possible.

It’s not, of course. Like a stag in “The Queen” that the monarch glimpses alone on the mountainside, and mourns when it is shot by a paying guest on a neighboring estate—or like a stag that, in this season of “The Crown,” Prince William shoots dead and, it being his first kill, is daubed with the blood of—Diana, named for a huntress, can only ever be the hunt’s victim. The escalating frenzy of her final weeks is distressingly depicted in “The Crown.” She is not just subject to the invasive stalking of paparazzi, she is betrayed by those whom she has trusted to take care of her. Another apparent friend, Mohamed Al-Fayed, ensnares her in his own dynastic drama: his pursuit of British legitimacy through a marital alliance between his feckless eldest son, Dodi Fayed, and the mother of a future king.

Thrown together by Al-Fayed and ensconced in his yacht, Diana and Dodi trade stories of daddy issues: Dodi complains about his father’s “obsessive control,” and Diana describes her own father’s emotional distance. “I wrote to him weekly from boarding school; ironed his shirts; baked him cakes. I even married the Prince of Wales. Anything to make him notice me,” she says, in Morgan’s winningly imagined tête-à-tête. But the sense of privacy is an illusion. The scenes that include Mohamed, brilliantly embodied in all his braggadocio and humiliation by Salim Daw, and Dodi, his doe-eyed, dopey son, are among the season’s most riveting. This is in part because their troubled dynamic has not been rehashed and retold a thousand times already, and in part because “Succession” has primed a television audience to appreciate a drama in which paternal love has been curdled by misplaced ambition into poisonous contempt. Morgan enriches the character of Dodi, who during his brief association with the Princess was flattened by the press into a sometimes racially charged caricature; he is played with touching sensitivity by Khalid Abdalla, and the pathos of his predicament is one of this season’s subtler successes.

Critics who animadverted at the depictions of Diana’s bulimia in Season 4 will be bracing themselves for unsubtlety when it comes to the car crash that caused her death; but Morgan renders it as delicately as possible at the outset of the first episode, as seen through the eyes—or, rather, heard through the ears—of a Parisian dog-walker by the Pont de l’Alma, who is surprised by a fast-moving car with paparazzi in pursuit. Although Morgan eschews the sight of tangled metal, he depicts the events that followed more intimately than he did the first time around, in 2006. On the day of Diana’s death, the Prince of Wales flew to Paris to bring home her body. In “The Queen,” Charles is led into the presence of an open casket at the hospital, and is seen, from a distance, through a glass door, holding back tears. In “The Crown,” the moment is more wrenching: Charles enters the cold sterility of the hospital mortuary. The camera shows only his grief-stricken face, then cuts away to the doctors and nurses waiting outside, who, like the viewers, can hear the howls of anguish from the heir to the throne. If one of Diana’s legacies to the monarchy was to establish an expectation of greater emotional openness, the fictional representation of Charles has undergone a similar transformation. In 2006, Prince Charles could not possibly wail. In 2023, how could he possibly not?

What, then, of Diana’s very last hours, those moments before she left by a rear door at the Ritz and climbed into the back of a car? There are no survivors to those final conversations between Diana and Dodi—no friends of the Princess to whom she had time to whisper down the phone an account of what really went on between her and the Harrods scion. Did he propose? (Mohamed Al-Fayed, who died earlier this year, would insist that Dodi had bought Diana an engagement ring. For a while, it was displayed in a memorial to the couple at Harrods.) If he did, what did she say? For once, there is no one in a position to authoritatively pronounce whether Morgan gets it right or wrong; and, without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that Morgan’s storytelling is deft, satisfying, and plausible, while also being neater than life usually turns out to be. It is after Diana’s death that Morgan takes his most extravagant artistic license, when he . . . well, viewers will have to see it for themselves, but those critics of “The Crown” who have decried Morgan’s willingness to put made-up words into the mouths of living people will have a whole other level of conniption when they learn what he’s done with the mouths of the dead. Diana died at 4 A.M., Paris time, on August 31, 1997; but Morgan, it turns out, could not bear to leave her alone there and then. And neither could the British public, who turned out in a crowd that numbered more than a million to watch her hearse depart her home at Kensington Palace; and neither could the estimated two billion people worldwide who tuned in to watch her funeral on television. And neither, more than a quarter century and six seasons of “The Crown” later, can we. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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