Even after all these years, the images still seem horrifyingly familiar.

In an image reproduced with uncanny accuracy in the new season of The Crown, Diana, Princess of Wales, sits on a diving board from the deck of a yacht, her long legs dangling above the water. In another, she hugs her new boyfriend Dodi Fayed. And in a third part, captured by a surveillance camera, the couple rides in an elevator at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on the way to their car late on a late 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 confusing periods in recent British history. Back then, Diana (here played by Elizabeth Debicki) and Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), an unlikely couple thrown together by circumstances, died in an accident in an underpass as they drove through Paris, followed by a group of photographers. Diana was only 36 years old and her death sparked a bout of grief in Britain over her loss and anger at the royal family.

Over the past five seasons, “The Crown” has evolved decade by decade, creating an epic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, starting with her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947. The earlier episodes sometimes felt quaint and far-off, new packaged story from a semi-distant past.

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

The first four episodes of the season (a second episode will be released on December 14th) deal with the history and consequences of the 1997 accident. By devoting so much attention to this period, the production not only runs the risk of becoming confused with the… conflicts with the viewer’s own memories, but also with countless previous depictions of the same events – a seemingly endless stream of books, dramas and documentaries. To name just two: “Diana,” the 2013 film about the princess’ final two years starring Naomi Watts, and “Diana and Dodi: The Princess and the Playboy,” a documentary about the couple was released at the beginning of the year.

Peter Morgan, the creator and writer of “The Crown,” also competes with his own 2006 film “The Queen,” which covers the same time period. It starred Helen Mirren as a confused, wrong-footed Queen Elizabeth, grappling with the raw emotions and almost ferocious anti-royal rage that erupted across Britain following Diana’s death. With its intimate scenes of conversations between members of the royal family and public figures such as then-Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), “The Queen” was a preview of Morgan’s approach in “The Crown” – a mix of history and fiction, one Blurring the line between public and private.

The new season of “The Crown” can’t help but revisit the themes of the 2006 film. It shows Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton, deftly channeling the tone and cadence of Elizabeth’s voice) contemplating whether she should stay with her grandchildren in Scotland after Diana’s death, as she would prefer, or whether they should travel to London and address the nation, as the tabloids and the Prime Minister urge (and what she ultimately does).

But the show is also devoted to the story of Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw), Dodi’s father, a once-impoverished and now extremely rich and ambitious Egyptian businessman, whose possessions included not only the Ritz in Paris, but also the Harrods department store, a symbol of upper class opulence, in London.

In scenes that have already caused a stir on the Internet and in the British tabloids, Dodi’s ghost returns after his death to speak to his father, while Diana’s ghost appears briefly 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 show’s research director — she is also the sister of Times publisher AG Sulzberger — said the research team was aware of the delicacy of reviving a story in which so many participants are still alive.

“People who witnessed Diana’s death feel a sense of responsibility for this story, a sense of participation that can influence their perception of it,” she said in an interview. “Given recent history, you’re constantly struggling with people’s intimate and personal perspectives.”

Sulzberger said the research team relied on multiple sources in recounting the events of 1997, including memoirs, documentaries and the government’s official investigation into the deaths of the couple in the car and a third victim, Henri Paul, the driver.

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

A particularly valuable source of information was a wide-ranging police investigation called Operation Paget, which examined claims by the increasingly disturbed 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, among others Prince Philip. (Diana was not pregnant, the report says, and the deaths were an accident.)

The inquiry’s final report included statements from friends and associates of the couple and revealed how Diana described her romance to the wide circle of confidants she spoke to by telephone from France.

Lady Annabel Goldsmith, a friend of Diana, told the inquest that they spoke on August 29, two days before the princess’s death. Goldsmith testified that when she asked Diana if she was thinking about marrying Dodi, Diana replied, “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’s who spoke to her on the day of her death, said that no one could say for sure what happened between Dodi and Diana in those final hours.

“It’s in the realm of the imagination,” Kay said in an interview. “It’s just – what can I say? – it’s speculation,” he said of the show’s depiction of a final conversation between Dodi and Diana.

While he agreed that it was unlikely that Diana would consider marrying Dodi, Kay said that Diana was “obviously very fond of him”, in part because Dodi was the first man she had been with since her split from Charles, several years ago before their divorce, could go out openly.

“Dodi was a very gentle, kind man, and I suspect he was very thoughtful,” Kay said. “It wasn’t just the extras that made him attractive – the jets and the yachts – but Diana also liked the ordinariness of the family life that al-Fayed led with his second wife and younger children.”

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

This gives the production a high level of protection and protection from possible lawsuits from injured public figures. Yet “whole generations are gaining their understanding of the modern British monarchy from drama,” broadcaster and political commentator Andrew Marr recently wrote in the Times of London, comparing the phenomenon to the way Shakespeare’s plays ever shaped the public interpretation of history have since.

“The Crown” could have portrayed Diana’s state of mind in these final weeks in many ways, choosing a particularly tender interpretation of her relationships with both her former husband and her new lover.

More than 25 years later, it’s hard to say definitively whether Diana had actually found some degree of emotional peace after so much turmoil. Morgan’s interpretation is just the latest in a long line of interpretations. But while The Crown leaves the Diana era behind, it may be the one that brings the most comfort.

Source : www.nytimes.com

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