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The Crown Did Diana Dirty

The Crown briefly shows us the infamous “revenge dress” but fails to understand or convey how Diana used her clothing to make intentional statements about her own independence. Photo: Keith Bernstein/Netflix

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Each season of Peter Morgan’s The Crown brings about a version of the same argument: Do people understand that what they’re watching is fiction, not a documentary? Dame Judi Dench is the latest to voice this concern, writing a letter to the Times about how the series is “crude sensationalism.” As someone who hadn’t watched The Crown before this year, I always rolled my eyes at the hand-wringing, but the fifth season of the Netflix series, which tackles the dissolution of Charles and Diana’s marriage, gives some credence to those arguments. It’s just that instead of criticizing the monarchy, it’s plainly taking its side.

Gone is the Princess Di I remember: the woman whom my Iranian mother and other female relatives spoke about with warmth and empathy and whose kindness, interest in other cultures and countries, and desire to take control of her own life after the rough deal she got from the royal family made her a beloved figure in diaspora communities around the world. In Morgan’s hands now, after her introduction in 2020’s fourth season, Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) is vengeful, immature, and materialistic, easily distracted by clothes and men, prone to cheap digs against Charles (Dominic West), and inappropriately reliant on her elder son, William, for emotional support. When Diana and Charles argue about whether she’s “mothering” or “smothering” their sons, The Crown agrees with the latter through its depiction of William using tea appointments with his grandmother (Imelda Staunton) as refuge from Diana’s phone calls. And her vulnerable Panorama interview with deceitful BBC journalist Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah), the forthcoming admissions from which endeared her to so many women who empathized with her desire for love and support from the family she married into, is presented as evidence of her shoddy decision-making.

“I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people,” she said to Bashir in real life, but this season of The Crown minimizes Diana’s legacy of charity work in order to amp up Charles’s progressivism, including an earnest depiction of his attempt to break-dance. Debicki bears an uncanny resemblance to Diana in her early 30s and, in moments, captures the mixture of shyness, forlornness, and yearning that inspired Brits and others to embrace her as the “people’s princess.” But the fifth season’s repositioning of Diana as petulant and reckless, particularly in contrast to Charles’s service-minded vision for the future and devotion to his mistress, Camilla (Olivia Williams), certainly feels like nefarious intent hidden behind fictional license. “Don’t rock the boat,” Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) warns his daughter-in-law in “The System,” and The Crown takes that advice as a credo this season with its clear allegiance to the current King Charles III. It was Diana’s willingness to speak up against “the system” that created a crack in the monarchy’s façade, eventually enabling series like The Crown to prod at what really happened behind closed palace doors. But Morgan, who has the sole writing credit on all of season five, repays her with superficiality and simplification.

Diana’s frivolousness starts right from the season premiere. While on a 1991 vacation in Italy that is being sold to the media as their second honeymoon, after Charles lists a sophisticated itinerary full of sightseeing, history, and art, Diana interrupts his cultural appreciation with “Some beaches, perhaps? And shopping?” Debicki’s line delivery might be attempting slyness, but the character’s whims are offered as impetuous, and Charles’s complaint that they would be “indulging in retail as recreation” is essentially a chastisement to people watching who might be hoping for a Diana-fashion sequence.

We do briefly see Diana’s infamous revenge dress in the fifth episode, “The Way Ahead,” but Morgan fails to convey how Diana used her clothing both before and after her separation from Charles to make intentional statements about her own independence. Over and over, we see shots of Diana’s sapphire engagement ring — as she buries her head in her hands after swimming alone or left on a table before her Panorama interview — but the iconic looks that she created to signal her separation from the system’s strict code of conduct, like the Harvard-sweatshirt-and-bike-shorts combination that goes viral on Twitter every few months, aren’t contextualized as representations of her own preferences. Diana was clearly plotting moves and making calculations in what The Crown hypes as “the war of the Waleses,” but the character’s thin interiority dulls those strategies.

Even scenes that should be inarguably indicative of the compassion that made Diana so popular get a flighty spin, like when her hospital visits to spend time with the ill are given less narrative importance than her checking out Dr. Hasnat Khan — “Quite dishy, wasn’t he?” — while her acupuncturist’s husband is struggling through surgery. It doesn’t help that in nearly every scene when Diana is alone with Charles, Philip, or the queen, they each act more logically and graciously than she does, advising discretion, swearing that they care for her, and offering regret for her isolation. Morgan has nonroyals, like Prime Minister John Major, note that Charles’s “one great asset is his wife” but then freezes Diana as a foil for others to show their reasonableness or maturity in contrast to her own childishness. When the queen says of Diana’s Panorama interview, “Haven’t we heard all this before — a thousand times?,” her rare bitterness feels like the series rolling its eyes at Diana’s complaints of being “shut out and left to cope on my own.” (It’s worth mentioning that Diana’s close friend Jemima Khan, who was brought in to consult and contribute to the fifth season, left when she realized the Diana plot “would not necessarily be told as respectfully or compassionately as I had hoped.” Netflix, for its part, denies she was ever a co-writer. It’s all about as messy as you would expect.)

By inviting viewers into royal bedrooms, sitting rooms, and family meetings, The Crown’s approach has always been to assume a position of exclusive access, even as it describes itself as a “fictional dramatization.” Its storytelling mode often leads viewers down one version of the truth before pulling back and injecting doubt, as in the episode about whether the Russian Romanovs met their deaths because of petty jealousies on the side of their U.K. cousins. For most of that hour, The Crown seems to align itself with Philip, who was related to the Romanovs, and his new companion Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone), who has a theory that King George and Queen Mary declined to provide safe passage to the Russian monarchs — until the queen rejects their musings, explaining what really happened and how “silence becomes part of one’s own DNA.” Flashbacks to a grieving Queen Mary support Elizabeth’s account, and the way these scenes are shot — with Staunton centered in the frame, authoritative and immovable — honors what we’re invited to perceive as strength and sacrifice.

The Crown later uses that same approach with the Panorama interview. The series is direct in making Bashir, as he was in real life, shockingly unscrupulous: He used an array of doctored and faked documents to befriend Diana’s brother and then ingratiated himself to Diana with similar forgeries and stories of how she was being watched and listened to by the monarchy (building on fears she had already exhibited when working with Andrew Morton on his 1992 biography). Diana falls for Bashir’s act easily and fully, but the series also attempts to argue that she wasn’t blameless. She is portrayed as being allured by Bashir’s Pakistani heritage, a trait he shares with Dr. Khan — a moment of shallow naïveté. She’s single-mindedly vengeful and looking to get back at Charles no matter the cost, an expression of her unsavviness. And instead of allowing for the possibility that this interview at least was an opportunity for Diana to speak her mind, even though the context around it was so problematic, The Crown uses it to once again illustrate the queen’s end-of-the-day rightness: When Diana visits her mother-in-law to tell her about the interview, Elizabeth counters with “All any of us want, Diana, is for you to be happy — and one day to be our next queen.” Elizabeth is given the moral high ground in this conversation by having the final say and thinking of someone other than herself, and Diana is painted with shame and regret.

What gets lost in this perpetual diminishment of Diana, though, is how her willingness to break away from the monarchy’s façade of happiness and steadiness, to go rogue with her charity work, and to let her emotions play out on her face is exactly what helped shatter the fantasy of this institution. And broadening that schism is The Crown, which can imagine amity or enmity along the royal lines — a freedom Diana’s glimpse behind the curtain helped make possible. Given that framing, the lack of grace notes for Diana this season is a noticeable oddity.

Photo: Keith Bernstein/Netflix

If Morgan can’t quite hide his irritation with the former princess of Wales, he makes little effort to mask his disdain for the Al-Fayed family, whose father-and-son duo of Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) and Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) would play massive roles in the last few years of Diana’s life. In Morgan’s imagining, the only relevant thing to know about Mohamed is his obsession with the British royals (“If we look up to their kings and queens as gods, it’s because they are,” he says in the backstory episode “Mou Mou”), while son Dodi’s vices are cocaine, white women, and private jets. Diana’s relationships with men from ethnic backgrounds tied to Britain’s colonial past, like Pakistani Brit Dr. Khan and Egyptian Brit Dodi, were part of her appeal to women around the world, monarchy admirers or not, for what they represented about her sincere curiosity in regard to ways of life outside her own. The Crown’s depiction of Mohamed as a crass social climber who only stopped being racist because white Brits got there first, Dodi as a dithering playboy convinced he’s entitled to his father’s fortune, and Diana as such a poor judge of character that she falls into their orbit undermines them all.

There’s only one scene this season that grasps at what might have drawn Diana and Mohamed together, and it’s an example of the engrossing fiction The Crown can create when it’s willing to humanize dissenters of the monarchy as much as it does those within it. In the final act of “Mou Mou,” Mohamed and his brothers have paid more than £600 million to buy the venerated British department store Harrods, and as the new owner, Mohamed sponsors a polo match at which he’ll sit next to the queen. But Elizabeth bails on Mohamed, sending Diana to sit next to him instead. Debicki and Daw are fantastic here as two outcasts disgruntled by how easily they can be maneuvered and manipulated, with the former all sarcastic drawls (“Special gifts for the boss lady?” she says of Mohamed’s gift bag for the queen) and the latter exuding a live-wire energy. There’s a punchy rhythm to their easy conversation about money, class, and the monarchy. In no other scene is Debicki this loose nor Diana this playfully candid: “You little creep,” she says to Mohamed when he notes that the gift bag includes not just any watch but “an expensive watch.” And Daw’s Mohamed is so charismatic and vibrantly alive that he transcends the limitations of the character’s writing, which is already colored by the contempt many would have for Mohamed after the deaths of Dodi and Diana in that Paris tunnel and the conspiracy accusations he has made for decades since.

I have a distinct memory of that night in 1997: It was the end of summer and I was reading in bed, with my little Circuit City radio at my side, when news broke of Diana’s death. I remember crying immediately and waking up my mother and her reaction being cooler, angrier — and, I recognize now, resigned. “They killed her” was what my mother said, and this season of The Crown works quite hard to ensure that no royals could be considered part of that they. Charles, Elizabeth, and other members of the monarchy get the benefit of additional motivations and characterizations that bolster their moral rightness, and the cost is Diana’s interiority, a victim of Morgan’s blurred line between fact and fiction.

The Crown Did Diana Dirty