New film centres on Christmas at Sandringham when Diana wasn't there

When DID Diana decide her marriage was doomed? A new film centres on Christmas at Sandringham in 1992 when she supposedly decided the fairy tale was over… but she wasn’t there that weekend, writes RICHARD KAY

  • Kristen Stewart, who made her name in Twilight, is preparing for the role
  • The script is being written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight 
  • The action is said by Pablo Larrain to take place in early 1990s at Sandringham

Any actress called upon to recreate the magic of Princess Diana has a tough job. The list of those who have tried is long — from the royally connected Catherine Oxenberg and naval officer’s daughter Serena Scott Thomas to Spooks star Genevieve O’Reilly.

Most recently it was the turn of Australian-born Naomi Watts who, in the 2013 biopic, captured the style and essence of what made Diana the most famous woman in the world but was saddled with a leaden script and an unconvincing plot.

Now Hollywood star Kristen Stewart, who made her name in the hit vampire romance film, Twilight, is preparing for her close-up in the role.

At 30 she is young enough and brings the necessary box office appeal, though whether at just 5 ft 4 in she can truly carry off the sashay of the Princess, all 5 ft 10¾ in of her, remains to be seen.

More pointedly, perhaps, will this finally be the first movie to do justice to the Princess, capturing not just her spirit and her beauty but the conflict in her life, too?

Social media critics are not impressed. ‘Princess Di was known for her charm and charisma,’ wrote one on Twitter. ‘I’ve seen rocks with more personality than Kristen Stewart.’

It will be a challenging few months for Stewart, as Watts discovered when her film, originally called Caught In Flight (the name was changed on the eve of its opening to Diana), premiered in 2013.

The critics savaged it — ‘terribly dull’ and ‘squirmingly embarrassing’ were among the kinder epithets.

This time the script is being written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight while the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, who made the acclaimed 2016 biopic Jackie, about the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is directing.

But will it be able to rise above an audience of millions of passionate Diana fans ready to criticise, just as they have with virtually every production that has made it to the screen?

More pointedly, perhaps, will this finally be the first movie to do justice to the Princess, capturing not just her spirit and her beauty but the conflict in her life, too?

Now Hollywood star Kristen Stewart, who made her name in the hit vampire romance film, Twilight, is preparing for her close-up in the role

Certainly the title of the film, Spencer, offers intriguing possibilities. This, of course, was Diana’s family name before she met and married the Prince of Wales.

And in Stewart the producers have chosen an actress who herself got a taste of the goldfish bowl of life after the blockbuster Twilight saga when she was hounded — as Diana was — by the paparazzi.

But then there is the plot. According to the director, the film is a fairy tale in reverse.

‘Usually the prince comes and finds the princess, invites her to become his wife and eventually she becomes queen,’ said Larrain, who says he has always been ‘intrigued and fascinated’ by the Royal Family.

‘When someone decides not to be queen and says: “I’d rather go and be myself”, it’s a big, big decision, a fairy tale upside down.’

The action takes place over three days — yes, just three days — and hinges on what Senor Larrain claims is the critical weekend when the Princess decided her marriage was over.

To focus on such a narrow period of Diana’s life will inevitably exclude so many key moments of her story. But the real question is whether the film has alighted on the right period and even the right backdrop?

The director is placing this episode at Sandringham, in Norfolk, the scene of so many royal dramas from the death of the Queen’s father King George VI in 1952, to the summit that decided the future of Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex in January.

And certainly Diana featured in some of those dramas herself.

She had been born on the royal estate and spent the first 14 years of her life there. Later, after her separation from Prince Charles, she had to endure the chilly hostility of the Royal Family when she made her increasingly brief Christmas visits to Sandringham House so she could be present when Prince William and Prince Harry opened their presents.

1989 was the year of the secretly recorded ‘Squidgygate’ tape with Diana in conversation with a close friend, James Gilbey (pictured) 

But the action is said by Pablo Larrain to take place in the early 1990s at Sandringham because she ‘spent so many Christmases there’.

In reality, for the first half a dozen years of her marriage, the royals spent Christmas at Windsor Castle and only moved the celebration to Sandringham in the late 1980s.

In interviews in the U.S., the director says the date of the drama is ‘not specific’, only to then suggest it is Christmas 1992. This is unfortunate because that was the one and only year when Diana was not at Sandringham on Christmas Day at all — because her marriage was by then over.

She and Charles had formally parted — their separation announced in the House of Commons by Prime Minister John Major — just over two weeks earlier and she couldn’t bear to spend a night under the same roof as her estranged husband.

Instead she spent it with her brother Earl Spencer and his young family at her ancestral home, Althorp, in Northamptonshire.

Of course by that stage, Diana had not yet been cut adrift from the Royal Family. Indeed, in his statement Major astonished MPs by suggesting that separation was no impediment to the Princess one day becoming queen at Charles’s side.

All the same such an elastic choice of dates shows that artistic licence is at work here, not just in the location but also in the idea that she came to the conclusion about her bleak marriage over three days.

The truth is that she had been wrestling with her domestic unhappiness for years. And there were very many moments when she felt she could not carry on with the marriage, but she persevered.

And the reason for that unhappiness had nothing to do with whether she would or would not be Queen — the central theme of director Larrain’s film.

As far as Diana was concerned it was because of the presence of Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, and the woman the Princess famously described as the ‘third person’ in her marriage.

Of course it is hardly the first time Hollywood has taken liberties with the facts to make a true life story fit — as it sees it — for the silver screen. At times it’s even understandable, but the Diana saga is so rich with possibilities and so many twists and turns it seems crazy not to stick to the narrative.

Surely the lessons of the success of the Netflix hit The Crown are clear: embellish by all means but remain close to the arc of the story, the one the public knows.

The director could have chosen a date three years earlier, for example, because 1989 was a highly significant moment in the history of the Charles and Diana story.

It was the year of the secretly recorded ‘Squidgygate’ tape with Diana in conversation with a close friend, James Gilbey.

On the tape the Princess lays bare her despair at her marriage and at her life. Of Charles, she says: ‘He makes my life real torture, I’ve decided’ and talks of ‘doing something dramatic because I can’t stand the confines of this marriage.’

She describes the strange looks she says she receives from the Queen Mother.

‘It’s not hatred, it’s sort of pity and interest mixed in one . . . every time I look up, she’s looking at me, and then looks away and smiles.’

Camilla Parker-Bowles and her sister, Annabel Elliot leaving a musical recital at Spencer House in London

In one dramatic flourish she declares: ‘After all I’ve done for this f****** family.’

The conversation was believed to have taken place around New Year when the Princess was indeed at Sandringham with Charles and the royals. But it was to be another three years before the content of the tape — said to have been made by an amateur radio enthusiast but which many believe was the work of the security services — was finally leaked.

Certainly that was one moment when the future of the royal marriage was hanging by a thread. But she did not choose to end it.

Diana’s former Scotland Yard bodyguard Ken Wharfe is, however, convinced that 1989 was the year the Princess considered her marriage to be over. He places the key date several months earlier and the extraordinary confrontation between the Princess and her rival Mrs Parker Bowles.

It came at the 40th birthday party for Camilla’s sister Annabel Elliot, which was held at the Richmond home of socialite Lady Annabel Goldsmith. Charles and Diana were both invited but no one expected the Princess to turn up as she avoided any social encounters with Camilla.

Instead she decided to go knowing full well that Camilla would be there. And because Diana went, Wharfe was there too. Their arrival stunned the party guests.

‘Everyone was in total shock at seeing the Princess there as they were Charles’s friends, not hers,’ the ex-policeman recalled. ‘I almost couldn’t bear to see her humiliated in front of so many people. I felt very uncomfortable for her.’

But the Diana he accompanied that February night was far from embarrassed. In an upstairs drawing room she sought out Camilla, ordered Charles to leave them, and as she later recalled told her: ‘I would just like you to know that I know exactly what is going on. I’m sorry I’m in the way. It must be hell for both of you . . . (but) don’t treat me like an idiot.’

Prince Charles is pictured with his sons Prince William and Prince Harry walking to the Christmas Day service at Sandringham Church

As Diana related it, Camilla’s response was to tell her: ‘You’ve got everything you ever wanted. You’ve got all the men in the world falling in love with you and you’ve got two beautiful children. What more could you want?’ Diana responded: ‘I want my husband.’

That evening Diana had set out to save her marriage only to later admit it was the evening she realised it was over.

But again it staggered on. There was one reason for this and it was more important than her own personal happiness — the welfare of William and Harry.

The boys had been insulated from much of the bitterness that divided their parents and Diana wanted to keep it that way.

So if not 1989, what were the other dates which could have triggered her departure?

Might she have considered leaving Charles in 1987 when they were no longer sharing a bedroom and she was romantically involved with cavalry officer James Hewitt? He still believed they had a future together, though she didn’t. And then there was her passionate affair with art dealer Oliver Hoare. This time she dreamed of a new life with him, while he knew he could never afford to keep the Princess in the style to which she was accustomed.

All these might have been deserving of a film treatment. Yet Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton daringly suggests the film could even have been set years earlier. He points to the time when she was pregnant with Prince William and threw herself down the Sandringham staircase, landing at the feet of the Queen Mother.

‘She was super-depressed, she was having treatment from the psychotherapist Alan McGlashan and she had started dreaming about Camilla,’ he says.

But this was 1982, not even a year into the royal marriage and even by Hollywood standards would stretch credibility.

Which brings us back to director Larrain’s preferred time frame. The date of the Windsor Castle fire in November 1992 might be significant. It was the last weekend the Princess ever spent at Highgrove, the country house which she had once decorated but had grown to loathe because she believed it was now Camilla’s domain and symbolised everything that was rotten in the marriage.

Soon after came the separation and despite assurances from Buckingham Palace that she would ‘from time to time’ attend family occasions, she was absent from Princess Anne’s wedding to her Naval officer second husband Tim Laurence.

And yet both Prince and Princess attended William and Harry’s school carol concert and their staff Christmas party. It was a start of a new phase in the couple’s lives and would suggest that despite everything, Diana never truly wanted the marriage to end.

The new film will paint a picture of Diana realising that she wants to be the woman she was before she met Charles.

That, however, is a myth. The Princess who finally emerged from the shattered marriage was an infinitely more worldly and stronger figure than the shy teenage girl who went into it.

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