From Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown to Kristen Stewart in Spencer: the best screen Dianas – ranked! | Diana, Princess of Wales

Diana, Princess of Wales, was the first and only great media celebrity of the British royal world – a figure with natural glamour, coquettishness and style; someone Camille Paglia once called the last silent-movie star. So it is natural that she should be captured on screen. Perhaps no one has quite nailed it, but here are my Top 5 fictional Dianas.

5. Serena Scott Thomas in Diana: Her True Story (1993)

Serena Scott Thomas and David Threlfall in Diana: Her True Story.
Serena Scott Thomas and David Threlfall in Diana: Her True Story. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

Serena Scott Thomas, sister of Kristin, had a stab at Diana for this shlocky and wooden TV movie in 1993, playing opposite David Threlfall’s wincingly fastidious Charles. It is based on the Andrew Morton book, but with a weird hint of Barbara Cartland raciness – perhaps appropriate as Cartland was the mother of Diana’s stepmother, Raine Spencer. The film has one of Charles’s courtiers bizarrely grumbling about Diana’s short hairdo conveying an “androgynous pansexuality”. Scott Thomas’s basic Sloaney character never really conjures Diana, and this drama, coming four years before her death, does not have the retrospectively applied tragic seriousness that now comes as standard. Nor, like recent treatments, does it really distinguish between girlishly innocent young Diana and the older, more worldly version. Scott Thomas might have been better cast as this older Diana, with a decent script.

4. Naomi Watts in Diana (2013)

Naomi Watts in Diana.
Naomi Watts in Diana. Photograph: Allstar/Scope Pictures

The normally excellent Watts is horribly let down in this excruciatingly embarrassing drama about Diana’s fraught private life at the time when she was trying to pursue a love affair with the heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, played by Naveen Andrews. She earnestly fabricates the upward-through-the-eyelashes look and estuary-posh voice but never nails Diana’s personality, at least partly because she is landed with some awful, cardboard dialogue. “A doctor’s triumphs are only temporary; I learned that from Victor Chang,” drones Khan. “He was the man you studied under in Sydney,” intones Diana, as if reading the line off an optician’s chart. Watts gives the part a certain glamour and style, but she is at sea in an abysmal film.

3. Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown (series five, 2022)

Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown.
Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown. Photograph: Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Perhaps no other Diana actor conveys what Debicki does: Diana’s height. She was appreciably taller than Charles – so for their engagement photograph she had to stand on a lower step. (Prince Philip is said to have barked, on news of the engagement, that she would at least “breed some height into the family”.) Debicki is a naturally elegant, stylish performer who carries off the couture creations, and she brings to Diana something that is often forgotten: that touch of Spencerian aristocratic hauteur. Debicki became famous in the BBC’s The Night Manager for playing the abused wife of an arrogant entitled man. She brings something of the same energy here.

2. Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021)

Kristen Stewart in Spencer.
Kristen Stewart in Spencer. Photograph: Album/Alamy

Stewart’s entertaining and studied impersonation of Diana in Pablo Larraín’s hallucinatory film, based on her final weekend at Sandringham in 1991, is undoubtedly the Diana performance with the most solemnly praised arthouse prestige. Stewart is good at Diana’s shoulder-shrugging convulsions of misery and protest. The movie exaggerates her unhappiness with black-comic stylings and flourishes – particularly when she dismisses a maid to be alone: “I want to masturbate …” The film is an amusing and preposterous contrivance, but one that takes itself very seriously as a work that elevates the Diana myth to the next level, though it is perhaps as naive as any other treatment.

1. Emma Corrin in The Crown (series four, 2020)

Emma Corrin in The Crown.
Emma Corrin in The Crown. Photograph: Des Willie/Netflix

Whatever your views on The Crown, it was a humble streaming TV show and not a garlanded movie that gave us the best Diana. Corrin was stunningly good as the young princess, perhaps because this wasn’t a try-hard, awards-bait performance, just an utterly natural one – with all the Diana Spencer mannerisms – while at the same time eerily artificial. Corrin fitted the hairstyle and the clothes in a way no other actor has; it was almost like a seance. The scenes for the Australian tour, with Diana thrilled by the public success and yet mortified by Charles’s criticism, are brilliant, as is the portrayal of her growing sense that her rising celebrity prestige might come to outrank Charles’s fusty royalness. Corrin is the queen of the Dianas.

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