By Simon Miraudo
October 7, 2013
How did they ever make a movie of Diana? That question was first posed for Lolita - the scandalous and very funny Vladimir Nabokov book, adapted somewhat sexlessly by Stanley Kubrick - but it's worth pondering here too. In what way did director Oliver Hirschbiegel go about bringing the Princess of Wales' tragic story to the big screen? Here's an answer: by focusing specifically on Princess Di's dalliance with the fame-averse heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. And here is a more appropriate answer: very poorly. Diana feels like a less powerful, slightly sillier retelling of Notting Hill (despite being about a real person whose life was prematurely taken in a horrific car crash, as opposed to a fictional actress famous for starring in a sci-fi blockbuster called Helix).
Naomi Watts plays Diana as a lonely, empty-eyed flibbertigibbet. The manic pixie dream princess, recently separated from Prince Charles, meets Khan (Naveen Andrews) after visiting her acupuncturist's husband in the hospital (one of the few times the feature sticks to historical fact, bizarrely). Their courtship is swift; they bond over their joint love of, erm, television, and presumably other similarities, such as their bipedal abilities and fondness for blinking. Soon, Diana is ditching the omnipresent paparazzi by donning a wig and joining Hasnat at takeaway chicken restaurants and divey jazz clubs. NB: There are three separate sequences in this movie wherein people silently listen to jazz. And no, none of them were under duress. Just those of us in the audience.
They date, and they break up because Hasnat doesn't want to live a public life. They get back together, and they break up because Hasnat doesn't want to live a public life. They get back together again, and ... apologies, I've forgotten what happens next. Oh, right, they break up because Hasnat doesn't want to live a public life. Diana eventually starts seeing Dodi Fayed - not even given the dignity to be addressed by name in the feature - and he comes across like the jock the heroine hooks up with in a terrible teen flick, before her sweet soul-mate can come to his senses and steal her back. Fate, in this instance, intervenes.
Screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys backs himself into a particularly uncinematic corner by framing Diana Spencer's existence in this manner. She was indeed a human woman with romantic entanglements, but she wasn't merely a woman with romantic entanglements. Better biopics illuminate historical figures by highlighting short periods of their lives and their idiosyncratic quirks (Lincoln, The King's Speech). The small-scope of Diana somehow manages to reduce its central subject. It's a somewhat schizophrenic effort, depicting her as both a Christ-like character (during the occasional, dutiful scenes of humanitarian work) and an adorkable one; two vacant versions of Diana, rather than one who seems whole. What's really fascinating about her legacy - her war with the Royal family - gets little play. Instead, we're left solely with this bland, will-they-won't-they soap opera; a particularly dour episode of Gossip Girl. (Dan and Serena did experience comparable trials.)
Hirschbiegel should not go without blame. His overbearing direction incites laughter more often than the intended tears. The constant cutaways to candles flickering in the wind; the introduction of one particular paparazzo working in Italy with assassin-like efficiency; that death march-like score (by David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia) intruding on tragic moments and shopping sequences alike, often resembling the theme from Koyaanisqatsi or the fabled 'brown note.' Every line of dialogue reeks of pained consideration and cliché, as if deep thematic meaning had to be ingrained in each of Diana and Khan's utterances. I've seen more nuance in, well, Gossip Girl. At least it's not quite as disastrous a political biopic as The Iron Lady, which is a horrendously awful portrait of an interesting, divisive individual. Dear reader, that is as faint as praise gets.
Diana arrives in Australian cinemas October 10, 2013.