Elizabeth Debicki, the phantom Lady Di: 'During filming for The Crown, I felt profound sadness'


The Aussie actress, portraying the adult princess in the latest season of the Netflix drama, revisits a myth of the collective imagination previously embodied by Naomi Watts, Kristen Stewart, and Emma Corrin

Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Diana Spencer in 'The Crown'.
Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Diana Spencer in 'The Crown'.NETFLIX

The world first saw her framed in the doorway of a house, like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, and much like the protagonist of Henry James' great novel, Lady Di continues to captivate us.

Diana Spencer, the timid girl in a cardigan, plaid skirt and flats working at a nursery who was chosen to become Princess Diana, wife, and mother to the future King of England. The world saw her walk out that door in 1980, next to the sign 'Young England Nursery,' not knowing — yet perhaps suspecting, hence the lowered head and insecure, fearful eyes — that it was a sliding door, that one door closes and another opens, and sometimes there is an invisible sign, not that of a nursery but one that reads "abandon all hope (of a normal life) ye who enter here".

The almost teenage bride-to-be of a future king unable to choose, the Ophelia of post-imperial Hamlet that the UK has always struggled to love; the suffering bride and mother, the tears always in private except once — the visit to Australia — even in public, the ill-concealed anorexia and bulimia (those with eyes to understand understood it all then, even before the courtiers' revelations), the separation from Charles and her renaissance, the marvelous haute couture dress with a swan neck that still inspires fashion, the senseless death in a black Mercedes driven by a drunkard and chased by paparazzi on a moped under the Alma bridge on August 31, 1997...

I spent over 25 years remembering her, more for her silences than for the sensational interview that grabbed the world's attention — "there were three of us in this marriage" — and the post-mortem testimonies about the Windsor's exceedingly low and unreal opinion — "that effing family" — of the woman who had almost immediately realized she would never be Queen, unable to play the game — in the court and in the media — of the one who is now the current Queen, Camilla, at Elizabeth's express wish.

Diana continues to engage us, engaging those who were there and the new generations, the "people's princess" crowned by the media and the millions of participants in that worldwide mourning so many years ago. She also questions — fittingly for one of the most media-covered figures of the 20th century — cinema and television, which in the streaming era dedicates movies and series to her that are the pop version of the journalistic investigations of yesteryear. Oscar-nominated films, failed movies, forgettable and soon forgotten TV snapshots, a musical that faded into thin air and still leaves us stunned by the vulgarity of its execution: many actresses have portrayed Diana, but only four stand out to this day.

Four actresses, four depictions of a Lady

Naomi Watts in Diana (2013), Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021) (Oscar-nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role and standing ovation at Venice), and the two Dianas from the Netflix series The Crown, Emma Corrin's young and frightened Diana and the adult Diana with all her contradictions portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki.

Four very different actresses: two Brits (one of whom grew up in Australia and later moved to the United States), an Australian, and an American from California. The portrayal isn't mimetic, so only the two actresses from The Crown really resemble Diana (especially Corrin, who resembles her in an almost uncanny way). What is impressive, however, is that Stewart's upper-class English accent — born in Los Angeles — is substantially perfect and, according to those who closely knew Diana, namely the people on her team at Kensington Palace, Stewart evoked her movements, tone of voice, and gazes with absolute precision despite being — of the four — the least like Diana.

Sadness, at center stage

The sixth and final season of The Crown, concluding with Charles and Camilla's wedding in 2005 — getting too close to the contemporary is always prickly business, controversies abound — has once again placed Diana at the center of the world's media attention. The portrait of lady or princess, according to Debicki, is based on one pillar: sadness.

However, the character also stuck with her at the core: "I felt a profound sadness within me during filming... that's why the moments of joy with the actors playing William and Harry, and with Dodi Al Fayed, were so genuinely joyful, they were a way to break away from that sadness... I live both in the UK and the US, and I'm Australian, so I can observe how different audiences react to the series. I believe that, overall, the series is also a fictional landscape built on a real world, real events, and life stories. And that's why I've always thought it created and offered the audience a connection with historical characters that were perceived as distant from us, ones we might not have felt so close to before. Now we can do that."

"It's hard for me to talk about The Crown because I'm in it. But, as a viewer, I know that when I started watching it, that was my experience. It really deepened the feeling of empathy I felt for historical characters that I knew nothing about. They existed in a history book, and Peter Morgan, the series creator, brought them to life in an accessible and very moving way. I think that's the legacy of the series," Debicki explains.

The never-ending story

Debicki's Diana's story doesn't end beneath the Alma bridge in Paris, but, in a choice of the authors that has caused and will cause debate, ends as a ghost story: the blonde-haired princess appears before Elizabeth and Charles after her death. If the dialogue in question is not sadly memorable, it's not the actress's fault, of course. But if a legendary actress like Judi Dench, at the height of her 87 years and extraordinary career, has labeled the series as "crass and malignant," then the debate is still very much open.

The very young Corrin (born in 1995, barely two years old when Diana died) offered the audience a reflective Diana who delves with reasonable circumspection into the very un-fairytale world of the Windsors, sincerely in love with Charles, by whom she is rejected, with Camilla's shadow looming over the marriage and with Philip — a wonderfully military Tobias Menzies — calling her to order in vain as one would call an undisciplined student officer.

Corrin's Diana lingers in the mind because of her silences, her vulnerability more subtly modulated compared to Debicki's, so focused on the pronounced curve of her shoulders (the actress is very tall, standing at 5'9") and her eyes wide like a trapped animal. But because of this, Corrin's tears — also aided by a very sensitive Josh O'Connor as the young Charles — when they do fall, have a much stronger effect on the viewer. Corrin makes Diana's despair palpable; Debicki is especially effective when, in the rare lighthearted moments, she plays with her children, a resentful ally of the mischievous Harry in the pranks played on the already stuffy William, who at a very young age is studying to be a future king.

Actress Naomi Watts does what she can — she is probably the best of the four actresses in terms of technique — but fails to salvage a film handicapped by the direction and its script — Diana in love with a Pakistani-born surgeon and not with Dodi, Diana caught in the middle between royalty and normal life — in a film that fails to take a conflicting stance to hold the viewer's attention.

Instead, with all its flaws — an endless series of artistic liberties for which the movie is advertised as a "fairy tale" — Kristen Stewart's Spencer is an almost Victorian gothic story, Diana beyond a nervous breakdown experiencing hallucinations (Anne Boleyn) and wandering through a mansion abandoned at night (one of the many things that never happened) with her father's jacket.

Stewart triumphs because she delivers a performance of absolute bravery, showing us her trapped psyche — the movie narrates her last Christmas at the Windsor house in 1991 — and the liberation that comes from escaping with her children and returning to London from the haunted countryside mansion, and the impromptu trip to a fast-food restaurant for fried chicken with the kids, in search of an impossible normalcy.