Naomi Watts is Lady Di in this savagely-reviewed biopic


Rating DianaDianaDianaDiana

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Starring Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Geraldine James, Charles Edwards, Juliet Stevenson, Laurence Belcher, Art Malik, Michael Byrne, Raffaello Degruttola, Lee Asquith-Coe, Mary Stockley, Andy Zelary, Harry Holland. Written by Stephen Jeffreys, from the book Diana: Her Last Love by Kate Snell.

Diana, a look at the famed Princess’ (surprisingly) little-publicized love affair with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan during the final years of her life, opened this month to positively scathing reviews in the UK press. Empire, The Mirror, and The Guardian each awarded the film a single star out of five; in the opening graph of his review for the latter, Peter Bradshaw deemed it “car crash cinema,” and if that was too subtle, stated that “16 years after that terrible day in 1997, [Diana] has died another awful death.”

In an age where all these high-profile biopics (see also: Amelia, J. Edgar, The Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn, Hitchcock, Hyde Park on Hudson, and most recently, Lovelace and Jobs) seem to all be the same respectful-but-bland, middling-quality TV-level film, it seemed Diana might be kind of the sensationalistic gossip magazine trash that we’ve all been waiting for. 

I was a little disappointed, then, to find that this film is cut from exactly the same cloth as the aforementioned. The notoriously finicky UK press has (expectedly) overreacted: while Diana isn’t very good, it’s nowhere near as bad as we’ve been led to believe. 

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment), the film is entirely reserved and tasteful, even classy. But the portrayal of the Princess is so refined, so carefully managed to avoid controversy, that we may as well be touring a wax museum.

Lady Di is effectively played by Naomi Watts, who suitably replicates the mannerisms and doe-eyed expressions, and beautifully fills out those knockout gowns. But in re-creating the historical figure, the script (by playwright Stephen Jeffreys, from the book by Kate Snell) forgets to color her as an actual person; while the (horrific) dialogue desperately wants to express emotion, all the humanity of the character is drained away. 

While the filmmakers are (justifiably) wary of challenging the pre-conceived image of Diana that most viewers will have, they completely missed the opportunity to add the depth that this more intimate portrayal should contain. But it didn’t have to be this way; compare this underwritten role to Helen Mirren’s memorable, humanistic turn as Elizabeth in The Queen.

Despite being called Diana, the film is entirely confined to a two-year period (from 1995-97) that covers her relationship with surgeon Khan (played by Naveen Andrews) and the events leading up to her death. Charles is nowhere to be seen, William and Harry only briefly glanced in a wide shot. Diana’s extravagant lifestyle – with her entourage of publicists, assistants, and security – is only background noise. 

In effect, this is a romance – a melancholy one at that, because not only do we know where the relationship is going, we know the fate of our doomed lead. But the reserved portrayal keeps us at arm’s length: this is a modern-day romance where we barely see the two leads kiss. We’re never as involved with these characters as we should be. It isn’t just that it’s boring: there’s no perspective here whatsoever. 

But while the tabloid sensationalism that made Diana’s popularity so enduring is completely absent, the film still contains its share of tastelessly subtle implications. The first occurs in the film’s opening scene, set in a Paris hotel in 1997, as a long-ish tracking shot of Diana suddenly swooshes back Sam Raimi-style in some bizarre horror movie foreshadowing of her impending demise. 

Towards the end, the script goes as far as to implicate Diana in her own death: purposefully leaking information about her and Dodi Fayed to the press in order to make Hasnat jealous, she inadvertently creates a paparazzi frenzy that leads to the fatal car crash. Tasteless or not, that’s the kind of POV that the rest of the film is sorely lacking. 

It must be (re-)stated that the dialogue here is positively atrocious. Poor Naveen Andrews gets the brunt of it, from a cheesy “going down?” elevator pickup line, to “I don’t perform surgery…surgery performs me,” to a romantic “if you can’t smell the fragrance, don’t come into the bedroom of love.” Yes, he really says that line, and more – if you can hear them over the rows of unintentional laughter. 

What were they thinking? Suffice it to say the script is a mess – and I didn’t even get to the scene where Diana breaks into Hasnat’s flat, tidies up the place, and leaves a lipstick kiss in the mirror, Fatal Attraction style. 

But is Diana irredeemably awful? It’s competently put together by director Hirschbiegel, and despite lacking any kind of engaging storyline I was surprised at how watchable I found it. The technical credentials – especially some gorgeous cinematography by Rainer Klausmann in London, Croatia, India, and other locales – are first-rate. This is an arty, refined affair; I was never nearly as offended here as I was during unbearable The Iron Lady (though I have little connection to the subject here – your experience may vary).

Ultimately, Diana is another middle-of-the-road biopic; the highest praise I can bestow upon it. 

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