With Diana’s Death, ‘The Crown’ Enters Its Most Evocative Era

The images are joltingly familiar, even after all these years.

In one, reproduced with eerie accuracy in the new season of “The Crown,” Diana, the Princess of Wales sits on a diving board off the deck of a yacht, her long legs dangling above the water. In another, she embraces her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. And in a third, taken from a security camera, the couple rides in an elevator at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, en route to their car late one August night. We know too well what happened next.

The sixth and final season of “The Crown” begins here, in 1997, on the cusp of one of the strangest and most bewildering periods in recent British history. That is when Diana (played here by Elizabeth Debicki) and Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), an unlikely couple thrown together by circumstance, were killed in a crash in an underpass as they drove across Paris, followed by a pack of photographers. Diana was just 36, and her death sent Britain into a paroxysm of grief at her loss and rage against the royal family.

Over the last five seasons, “The Crown” has been unspooling decade by decade, producing an epic portrait of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, starting with her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947. The earlier episodes could sometimes feel quaint and far away, repackaged history from a semi-distant past.

But the new season, which begins a year after Diana has divorced Prince Charles (Dominic West) and ends with Charles’s wedding to his longtime girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) in 2005, eight years later, is a different thing entirely.

The first four episodes of the season (a second batch will arrive on Dec. 14) explore the lead up to and fallout from the 1997 accident. By devoting so much attention to this period, the production risks clashing not just with viewers’ own memories, but also with countless earlier depictions of the same events — a seemingly never-ending stream of books, dramas and documentaries. To name just two, there’s “Diana,” the 2013 film about the princess’s final two years, starring Naomi Watts, and “Diana and Dodi: The Princess and the Playboy,” a documentary about the couple that was released earlier this year.

Peter Morgan, the creator and writer of “The Crown,” is also competing with his own 2006 film, “The Queen,” which covers the same period. It starred Helen Mirren as a bewildered, wrong-footed Queen Elizabeth grappling with the raw emotion and almost feral anti-royal rage that erupted across Britain after Diana’s death. With its intimate scenes of conversations between members of the royal family and public figures like the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), “The Queen” was a preview of Morgan’s approach in “The Crown” — a blend of history and fiction, a muddying of the line between the public and the private.

The new season of “The Crown” can’t help but revisit the themes of the 2006 movie. It shows Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton, deftly channeling the sound and cadence of Elizabeth’s voice) fretting about whether to stay in Scotland with her grandsons after Diana’s death, as she would prefer, or to travel to London and address the nation, as the tabloids and the prime minister are urging (and which she ends up doing).

But the show gives time, too, to the story of Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw), Dodi’s father, a once-impoverished and now wildly rich and ambitious Egyptian businessman whose holdings included not just the Ritz in Paris but also Harrods department store, a symbol of upper-crust opulence, in London.

In scenes that have already caused some chatter online and in the British tabloids, Dodi’s ghost returns to talk to his father after his death, while Diana’s ghost briefly appears in conversations with Charles and Queen Elizabeth.

How accurate are the non-ghostly scenes in this latest depiction of the Dodi-Diana romance? Annie Sulzberger, the head of research for the show — she is also the sister of The Times’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger — said that the research team was mindful of the delicacy around resurrecting a story in which so many participants are still alive.

“People who lived through Diana’s death feel a sense of ownership over that history, a sense of participation, which can color their perception of it,” she said in an interview. “With recent history, you’re constantly battling with people’s intimate and personal perspectives.”

Sulzberger said that the research team turned to multiple sources to depict the events of 1997, including memoirs, documentaries and the official government inquest into the couple’s deaths in the car along with a third victim, Henri Paul, the driver.

“If there’s a documentary, we watched it; if there’s an article, we read it; if there’s a book, we have it,” she said.

One particularly valuable source of information was a far-reaching police inquiry known as Operation Paget, which investigated claims by an increasingly unhinged Mohamed al-Fayed that Diana was pregnant with Dodi’s baby and that the couple had been murdered by the British security services at the behest of Prince Philip, among others. (Diana was not pregnant, the report found, and the deaths were an accident.)

The inquiry’s final report included testimony from friends and employees of the couple, revealing how Diana described their romance to the vast circle of confidants she spoke to by telephone from France.

Lady Annabel Goldsmith, a friend of Diana’s, told the inquiry that they had talked on Aug. 29, two days before the princess’s death. Goldsmith testified that when she asked Diana whether she was considering marrying Dodi, Diana said: “Annabel, I need marriage like a rash on my face.”

Richard Kay, a longtime royal reporter for The Daily Mail and a close friend of Diana who spoke to her the day she died, said that nobody could say for sure what happened between Dodi and Diana in those final hours.

“This is in the realm of fantasy,” Kay said in an interview. “It’s just — what can I say? — it’s speculation,” he said of the program’s depiction of a last conversation between Dodi and Diana.

While he agreed that it was unlikely that Diana was considering marrying Dodi, Kay said that Diana was “clearly very taken with him,” in part because Dodi was the first man she could date openly since her separation from Charles, several years before their divorce.

“Dodi was a quite gentle, sweet sort of man, and I suspect he was very attentive,” Kay said. “It wasn’t just the trappings that made him attractive — the jets and the yachts — but Diana quite liked the ordinariness of the family life al-Fayed had with his second wife and younger children.”

As always in “The Crown,” there is an underlying tension not only between what might be real and what might be imagined, but also how that could color the public’s perception of the truth. Last year, after a wave of criticism from real-life participants of made-up scenes, the series added a disclaimer. It was, it said for the first time, a “fictional dramatization” that was “inspired by real events.”

That gives the production high cover and protection from potential lawsuits from aggrieved public figures. But still, “entire generations are getting their understanding of the modern British monarchy from the drama,” the broadcaster and political commentator Andrew Marr wrote recently in The Times of London, comparing the phenomenon to the way Shakespeare’s dramas have shaped public interpretations of history ever since.

There are many ways “The Crown” could have portrayed Diana’s state of mind in those last weeks, and it chose a particularly gentle interpretation of her relationships with both her former husband and her new lover.

More than 25 years later, it is hard to say definitively whether Diana had indeed found a measure of emotional peace after so much turmoil. Morgan’s is just the latest in a long line of interpretations. But as “The Crown” moves past the Diana era, perhaps it’s the one that brings the most comfort.

Sarah Lyall

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