Film about the late princess of Wales shows her reckless, romantic sides but marks a terrible Anglophone début for its revered German director.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 115 minutes
With Diana, director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made a film about Adolf Hitler in 2004 (Der Untergang, released for the English-speaking market under the title Downfall), has created a movie about another figure who is not exactly loved in her own country. Though not generating the same kind of vitriol as Margaret Thatcher, the late princess of Wales was thought to be enjoying the limelight a little more than she let on when she was publicly denouncing the British press’s lack of respect for her privacy.
The film only focuses on the last two years of her life, and in particular her on-again, off-again relationship with cardiologist Hasnat Khan. It is easy to see why Hirschbiegel was drawn to this project, as this is again a historical character who was a point of conversation and always in the public eye. Far from empathising with her, the director shows the situation in which she finds herself – at the mercy and yet simultaneously at the beck and call of Buckingham Palace – and her inability to realise how difficult it would be to make a relationship work with someone who cherishes his privacy much more than she does, and for whom hers is an alien world.
Khan seems like a very intelligent man who would give Diana the world if he could, but he refuses to give up his own identity. While the princess claims she is not asking him to do that, she simply fails to realise what an impact the constant flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras – or, for that matter, the hush-hush, the whispering or the finger-pointing in the street or in a restaurant – has on the life of an otherwise ordinary citizen. Having lived with such trifles for a long time already, she simply cannot sympathise with how little desire Khan has to interact with the nosy press.
We are shown what a narcissist Diana was by her constant looks in the mirror, and that goes some way towards explaining her actions late in the film, when she intimately plays along with members of the press, hinting at where she will be so she can be photographed and thus annoy “the Windsors” with her antics. She was anything but a damsel in distress when it came to the media; on the contrary, it almost seems she would start to drool Pavlov-style at the click of a shutter.
But we never get closer to her than did all the tabloids that covered her for so many years. While we see some details about her relationship with Khan, enormous chunks of her life are left out. She interacts with her own children in one single scene, and by the time we meet them she is seeing them off at the airport. For a woman who boasts about having four mobile phones, such an absence of communication between her and her children is impossible to understand.
Poor Naomi Watts, though not given much to work with in the title role, doesn’t meet our expectations either, as her delivery is often histrionic, and especially in the recreation of the well-publicised BBC television with Martin Bashir, Watts tries to interpret rather than mimic the real Diana but ends up appearing robotic and embarrassing.
Hirschbiegel nearly gets into Diana’s mind when she meets famed South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard (who performed the world’s first heart transplant) at an event in Italy and opens up about her love for Khan, but instead of asking him about his own experience reconciling his public and his private lives, she doesn’t even flinch when she asks him to find a job for her boyfriend so they can move abroad. The scene isn’t helped either by actor Michael Byrne, who plays Barnard, making a truly ghastly attempt at an Afrikaans accent.
The viewer will have many questions, most pressing of which is probably why Diana dons a wig only some of the time instead of carrying it around with her to avoid being recognised. But here is one of the most famous women in the world prancing around the streets of London at 3 a.m., completely exposed. Such lunacy does not elicit empathy, and neither does her self-pitying piano rendition of Bach’s “Aria”, which she performs not once but twice.
Diana famously said there were three people in her marriage with Prince Charles, referring to his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, but going by this film, even if they were only two, the marriage would have been too crowded with her ego taking up so much space.
This is a story about a very troubled woman whose problems we are supposed to know from the real world and not because the film tells us or even hints at them, and such a reliance on facts outside the immediate world of the film nearly sinks the production, because it undercuts its very existence. That, on top of the slightly deranged central character whom we never really warm up to, the flat delivery of mediocre dialogue and truly odd directing choices (the opening scene prepares us for a Hitchcockian thriller), makes this film just another run-of-the-mill biopic.