In life, Princess Diana became an almost untouchable icon. Since her untimely death, artists have attempted to capture the essence of what made her spectacular and tell her story with all of its hope and turmoil. There have been many actresses who have brought the People’s Princess to the big and small screens.
1. Spencer (2021): Kirsten Stewart
Director Pablo Larrain begins Spencer by informing viewers that this is a parable based on a true story. There’s no better summary for Kirsten Stewart’s portrayal of Diana.
In contrast to many previous portrayals, Spencer completely centers Diana as a character of her own and gives her her own agency. Stewart brings a vulnerability to the role that’s so palpable to the role. This Diana unsettles viewers at every moment.
It’s rarely clear what’s real and what isn’t, from beginning to end. Stewart’s voice and mannerisms are spot on, and viewers can feel the overwhelming sense of being trapped Diana must have felt in her last days as an official member of the Royal Family.
2. Diana The Musical (2021): Jeanna de Waal
Let’s just say Netflix made a choice when they released Diana The Musical before it had had a chance to hit the stage.
While the costumes are brilliant, and de Waal wears them so well, the rest of the musical leaves a lot to be desired. This is one of the most stilted portrayals of Diana. Perhaps there was too much being asked of the character Diana in this production, as it spans from her early days in the public eye as a 19-year-old nursery school assistant to her death at age 36.
De Waal does the best that she can with what she’s given, but the songs and story take so much agency away from the former Princess of Wales.
3. The Crown Season 4 (2020): Emma Corrin
So much has been written about Corrin’s portrayal as Diana in The Crown. Portraying Diana at the beginning of her public life, Corrin so expertly plays a young woman being thrust into the massive machine that is the British Royal Family.
Her youth and inexperience with life, in general, is never mistaken for absolute naivety, and her journey from a rock music-loving teenager to a young mother questioning her place in her family.
The compassion Corrin brings to the role shines through in every scene she’s in, and fans will definitely miss her in The Crown. Elizabeth Debicki is set to take over the role in Season 5 of The Crown which will premiere in 2022.
4. Diana (2013): Naomi Watts
Naomi Watts in Diana centers around the last two years of Diana’s life. The movie’s focus is mainly her relationship with British-Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, played here by Naveen Andrews. Although these two have undeniable chemistry, there’s precious little they can do with a cheesy script and poorly written dialogue.
Watts does her absolute best to portray Diana and the sense of relief at being released from the British Royal Family and allowed to fully express her need for love and affection that she was too often denied over the course of her life.
This movie overall is unfortunately characterized by terrible dialogue and equally terrible music that is completely out of place for the tone.
5. Diana Last Days of a Princess (2007): Genevieve O’Reilly
This made-for-TV movie combines actual footage and interviews from this time period, giving Last Days of a Princess a distinct docudrama feel.
O’Reilly’s portrayal of Diana has a distinctly claustrophobic feel. Viewers can feel the paparazzi closing in through the screen, and it’s a very effective reminder of how hounded Diana was by the press. Particularly in the closing moments, the audience feels a tiny glimpse of what Diana must have felt being literally chased every minute of every day by the paparazzi.
The costumes on this Diana are incredibly muted, which was an odd choice considering what a fashion icon she was.
6. Diana: A Tribute to the People’s Princess (1998): Amy Seccombe
Diana: A Tribute to the People’s Princess very much focuses on Diana as a mother, and her efforts to be the best parent she could be in the midst of the turmoil that surrounded her. The movie is intent on demonizing all of Diana’s enemies to the fullest extent, including Dodi Fayed (George Jackos) and his former fiance.
Her relationships with Hasnat Khan (Anthony Zaki) and Dodi Al Fayed in this story are centered around Diana and are shown as ways of self-expression for Seccombe’s Diana.
Seccombe’s portrayal of Diana focuses too on her extensive humanitarian work. Seccombe does a terrific job portraying both the heartbreak and relief of losing her official royal title and her optimism in forging a life of her own.
7. Princess in Love (1996): Julie Cox
The focus of Princess in Love is Diana’s relationship with Captain James Hewitt. It’s based on the book of the same name by Hewitt himself, and the movie definitely shows.
This portrayal is so exclusively centered around Diana’s relationship with Hewitt, it takes away her agency as many other portrayals of her do when focused on her relationships rather than her as a person.
Cox’s Diana attempts to focus almost exclusively on her capacity for love after by all accounts being deprived of it for so long through her life. Hers is among the most earnest portrayals of Diana.
8. Diana Her True Story (1993): Serena Scott Thomas
Diana: Her True Story was a two-part TV miniseries. It was released following the publication of British journalist and royal biographer Andrew Morton’s book of the same name.
Scott Thomas’ portrayal of Diana may be among the most expansive. She was able to show the insecurity and pressure, along with the tragedy and desperation Diana faced while within the royal family.
Based on when it was released, the movie was able to tell a unique story in terms of the timeline of Diana’s life. In real life, Diana was already openly unhappy in her marriage to Prince Charles but had not gone through the very public divorce that would follow several years later.
9. The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982): Catherine Oxenberg
When I first watched this made-for-TV movie, I thought it was the least realistic and most sappy of all of these portrayals. On reflection, however, it’s clear that this was ultimately the most tragic portrayal of Diana because it showed the fairytale that everyone wanted to be true.
Oxenberg herself has royal connections, being the daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. Interestingly, Oxenberg reprised her role in the movie Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After. The veneer of the fairytale is gone in this rendition, and a story much closer to the real-life tragedy.
Of note, the character of Princess Diana has made several cameos in other royal-centric movies and TV shows. Lesley Harcourt had a brief appearance in a brief scene of the Hallmark movie William and Catherine, A Royal Romance.
On par with The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, Caroline Bliss’s character in Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story is another cheesy, almost deified portrait of Diana that is entirely based around the fantasy rather than the person.
Bonnie Soper had a cameo as Princess Diana in the Lifetime movies centered around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, including Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal, and Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace.
Finally, Nicola Formby played Princess Diana in the 1992 movie The Women of Windsor, focusing on the relationship and similarities between Princess Diana and Sarah Duchess of York and their tumultuous lives within the British Royal Family.
There may never be a time when the world is not fascinated by Diana and her story. We can only hope that all future iterations of the People’s Princess will focus on her humanity rather than the epic myth she continues to be.