The thing about biopics is that too many people tune in, searching for the truth, trying to connect the emotional dots between the publicly available facts. However, season six, part one of Peter Morgan’s The Crown, is peak melodrama, a lavishly produced, meticulously crafted but ultimately fictionalised rendition of the last eight weeks of Princess Diana’s life.
This is the least boring The Crown has been since season two, and it is as heartbreaking as one could imagine.
We knew what we were in for with the final season of the Netflix series that brought alive the British royal family in ways never seen before. Over its six seasons, the show has gone from being criticised for being too kind to altogether too harsh to the royal family members; the later criticism came in the footsteps of Diana Spencer’s entry into the foray. But there was no other way of holding grace for the People’s Princess, whose untimely death and equally tragic life immortalised the love people have continued to feel for her. So, in its swansong, The Crown becomes all about Diana.
Season six begins in the middle of the mire. This is a story everyone knows, after all. There is no need for exposition, but it does happen in flashbacks. The show begins on the streets of Paris, not with Diana or Dodi (portrayed by Khalid Abdalla), but with a nameless stranger out on a walk with his dog. As he ardently implores his pet to do ‘his business’, a black car screeches past him, followed by dozens of men on motorbikes armed with cameras mounted with their long, intrusive lenses. Next comes the sound of the fatal crash with its haunting finality.
Thankfully, we are not shown the car’s interiors in any more detail on its final ride into the tunnels. We are spared seeing a terrified Diana or Dodi in their final moments. There are no gravity-defying stunts, no cars flipping through the air with its temporary residents being thrown amok in slow-mo. There was no need for it to be that ghoulish. And it isn’t.
Directed by Alex Gabassi and Christian Schwochow, the first four episodes of The Crown season six give Elizabeth Debicki the centre of the stage. Debicki is electrifying in the final moments of Diana’s life. She is fun, thoughtful, vibrant, and still carrying the shadows of her deepest embarrassments and agony. She does not merely mimic Diana’s body language and caricature her wispy voice. She embodies the woman who was increasingly coming into her own since her divorce from the royal family.
From the deep, azure waters of St. Tropez to the cobbled streets of Monte Carlo, as she is heckled, harassed, and hunted by the paparazzi, Debicki’s Diana also gives us an insight into the mind of a woman who was immensely intelligent, astute yet patient and kind. Debicki’s portrayal of a multidimensional woman trying to negotiate her place in a world that was constantly putting her in boxes is poised and often wondrous.
We are introduced to a carefree and determined Diana listening to Chumbawamba’s infectiously energetic ‘Tubthumping’ about eight weeks before her death. This is slightly anachronistic because she passed away on August 31st, 1997, and the Chumbawamba number was released on August 11th. But that doesn’t matter because The Crown is historical fiction at the end of the day. The tone shifts by the end of her journey. Her demise on-screen is marked by lilting choral music, instantly befitting and haunting.
While it might be hard to take your eyes off Debicki, Imelda Staunton grabs attention as soon as she steps into the frame. Claire Foy was spectacular in her early depiction of Queen Elizabeth in the show’s first two seasons. She captured the reticent Queen’s nuances with every microexpression washing across her face. Staunton does quite the same. She is hateable in her disdain for Diana and understandable in her exasperation with her.
Dominic West continues to do too much to humanise Charles, who oscillates between doing right by the love of his life, Camilla (played by Olivia Williams, who looks like the real Camilla even more uncannily this season) and the mother of his sons, Diana. The season begins with Charles’ struggle to get Camilla legitimacy, something Camilla herself seems all too nonchalant about, vaguely confident of gaining acceptance and approval sooner than later. All the while, Diana’s shadow looms large above the lovers, disgraced in the public eye. While the fictional Camilla is confident of societal embrace, we know that the fairytale narrative of the wronged princess never changes.
Charles and Camilla are treated far more kindly than ever in the public eye. Even the parallels between Charles and Dodi—two men caught between their influential parents and their own desires and wishes—are there to craft a far more sympathetic and rounded notion of the men in Diana’s life. The great enemy is circumstances, not the people.
Part one of season six sits comfortably in the spectrum of stories that act like time machines, filling you with increasing unease because you know you cannot reach in and rewrite history. The sense of discomfort grows exponentially in the final moments of Diana’s life. The parallels of her being stalked by the paparazzi as William goes on his first stag hunt give these episodes the bonafide feel of a horror story.
The place where these episodes of The Crown threaten to tip into mawkish territory is when we see Diana and Dodi’s spectres show up. Watching Diana’s phantasm acting as Jiminy Cricket to the stoic Queen and also giving cinematic closure to a heartbroken Charles is a strange experience. But hers is not the only spirit showing up, resolving issues.
As most of the world seemingly mourns only Diana, Dodi’s apparition comes as the voice of reason to his father, Muhammad Fayed when he decries, “Is it the fate of the Arabs to always be hated by the West?” Given the current political situation in Palestine, where most of the Western superpowers seem to be looking the other way, this question feels pertinent, albeit perhaps a little on the nose.
The Crown may have been about Elizabeth’s story, but it was always about catching up with Diana. And when her story had to end—because it had to—just like the whole world still heartbroken over a woman they never knew, even the show’s makers couldn’t let go of Diana. Elizabeth Debicki as Diana lights up the screen. Everyone else is simply posturing vaguely and pointlessly without her there. So, metaphorically, they had to bring her out of the coffin.
Diana is transformed in The Crown as the conscience of the two people who have been most abjectly detested and held accountable for her tragic end. So, the Queen and Charles receive a fantastical and saccharine absolution that never happened in reality but is the more soothing narrative to peddle.
The show becomes entirely too dramatic with all these spectral visits, but perhaps these histrionics more closely match the mood that was felt by people across the world when news of Diana’s death broke that August more than 26 years ago.
You can now watch The Crown season six, part one on Netflix, and catch the trailer here: