Review: DIANA Is A Minefield Of Poor Decisions And Missed Opportunities

James Marsh, Asian Editor
From its risible dialogue to its strangely affected central performance, Oliver Hirschbiegel's dramatisation of Diana's final years is an uncomfortable and mostly tedious affair that feels perpetually in fear of revealing anything even remotely interesting about the ill-fated People's Princess.

When Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris on 31 August, 1997, it became, like the Kennedy Assassination before it, a defining moment for a generation. Perhaps eclipsed a few years later by the events of 9/11, everyone still remembers where they were when they heard the news that she had died. For me, it's a story that remains a particular favourite, for the simple fact that the circumstances were rather bizarre.

I was on summer holiday following my first year at university, backpacking through Central America with a group of school friends. We were visiting Tikal, a huge ancient Mayan city that survives deep in the jungles of Eastern Guatemala (and appears in a number of films, most memorably Star Wars and Moonraker). After a full day's scampering up and down the pyramids, yodeling above the canopy and losing half our body weight in sweat due to the ferocious humidity, we were on our way back to the hotel when we skipped into a small shack to buy a few bottles of water.

Emblazoned on the front page of El Periodico, the daily newspaper which sat discarded on the counter, were the words PRINCESA DIANA MUERTA. Even with my shaky Spanish, which until that day had been used solely to purchase beer and ask directions to the bus terminus, I knew what it said. My friend and I came bounding out of the cafe, exclaiming at the tops of our voices "Diana's dead! Diana's dead!" not in grief, but rather just with the excitement of knowing something truly Earth-shattering had happened that needed to be shared immediately.

I remember the journey back to the hotel. As we sat in the rear of the jeep, our disbelief quickly turned to lighthearted gibing (as is normal in a group of excitable 20-year-olds) and before long we were cracking jokes at Diana's expense and generally all being rather insensitive. There was a young British peace corps worker sharing our ride back, who had been rather chatty all day, only to fall silent on hearing the news. She was planning to move on with us the following morning, but the next day she had already left by the time we woke up. I suspect the poor woman had been rather upset by the news, and was put off by our adolescent insensitivity.

In many ways, we considered ourselves fortunate not to be back home when the tragedy struck. It was bizarre enough to witness the spectacular outpouring of emotion that overwhelmed the United Kingdom over the following week from the other side of the world. Had I been at home it would likely have become intolerable, or who knows, I might have been swept up in the tsunami of goodwill myself, which appeared to reach hysterical proportions as many no doubt projected their own dreams, failures and tragedies onto Diana and the nation wept as one, at least for a short while.

Sixteen years on, and more than enough time has passed for a biopic of the Princess of Wales to be considered welcome, of significant public interest and not in the least bit exploitative. There are so many elements to her story that would make a rip-roaring big screen drama - her failed marriage to Prince Charles, heir to the British Empire, her love affairs, her humanitarian work, the incredible tragedy and lingering conspiracy theories surrounding her death, aged just 36 - and yet what we get from Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys is the polar opposite.

Diana, adapted from Kate Snell's book Diana - Her Last Love seems determined to tread the path of least resistance and chronicle the Princess' final two years without upsetting any of the other involved parties along the way. The central focus of the drama is not her divorce, her prickly relationship with the Royal Family, or even her liaison with Dodi Al Fayed and the long-lingering involvement of his father, Mohammed in the years following her death. The film doesn't even look into the questionable events of that fateful evening, let alone attempt to analyse the lasting after-effects it had on Great Britain and its people.

Instead, Diana is the story of a relatively innocent romance between a very private, professional and unassuming Pakistani heart surgeon, Haznat Khan (Naveen Andrews), who just happened to attract the attentions of the world's most famous woman during the most tumultuous period of her short life. The details of their courtship are pretty unspectacular, confined to late-night rendezvous in London parks or hospital waiting rooms, and the film tries desperately to play things out like a marginally less amusing version of Roger Michell's Notting Hill. She may be loved by millions, but she's still looking for real romance.

The big problem here is by largely sidestepping the major, publicised events in Diana's life, the film is forced to make things up. Nothing outrageous, simply the conversations, the courtship and the excruciating pillow talk between a straightlaced surgeon and a hell-on-wheels celebrity trying desperately to be perceived as a normal person. The result is a series of mundane, trivial and stupefyingly redundant exchanges that not only reduce the characters to lobotomised sock puppets but make you question the integrity of Andrews and Naomi Watts, two top class performers who almost always deliver first rate work and really should know better.

Perhaps appropriately all eyes will be on Watts, and her interpretation of a woman beloved by millions around the world, and held up as a victim of both outdated monarchist dogma and feverish media attention. Unfortunately for an actress who has built a career on high calibre and diverse roles in films like Mulholland Dr., 21 Grams and The Impossible, as Diana she is reduced to a series of shrugs, blushes and coy smiles from under an assortment of frighteningly bad wigs. Watts is trying so hard to imitate Diana, to nail down the signature traits we all remember from "that" television interview and numerous glammed up public appearances that there is a complete absence of personality.

And this is the root of all the film's problems. It has no opinions, it has no personality, it has absolutely nothing to say. There are brief flourishes where Hirschbiegel's directorial prowess shines through - the Angolan vignette depicting Diana's walk through a field of landmines, a foggy drive with Khan to "the ends of the Earth" while listening to French crooners, and the film's climactic montage as the events of that late night chase through Paris end in tragedy. These moments are all pretty powerful on their own, but scattered among two hours of turgid melodrama that would have no place in a daytime soap, they can do nothing to save the film from being a laborious chore.

Where it all went wrong seems to be in its crisis of confidence. There is clearly an exciting, engaging story to be told, but to do so the way general audiences would want to see it would mean upsetting too many powerful people or sensitive conservatives along the way. Much like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, this is not the film about the Princess of Wales that anybody wants to see. We need something more challenging, more investigative, more revelatory, rather than simply a plod through the least interesting contour of those final years.

The irony of all this is that by making every effort to produce a film that won't upset anybody, the result is a film of interest to nobody and those most likely to react negatively are the ones who were most excited to see it in the first place - those that still mourn for their Queen of Hearts today. Me? I'm not bothered either way. I neither loved nor loathed Diana, and her memory is merely one of a celebrity who died way before her time, just as her life was getting interesting. What upsets me most about Diana, and about Diana if I'm honest, is that I'm reminded of that poor peace corps worker back in Guatemala, who was probably devastated by the news that her role model had been killed, and had only a gang of obnoxious young lads on a jolly to turn to for support.

We let her down that day, and I'll never forget it, and it's her who's been let down again now, by Oliver Hirschbiegel, Naomi Watts and everyone else involved in this half-hearted, gutless excuse for a eulogy.
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  • Martin Wagner

    "Perhaps eclipsed a few years later by the events of 9/11, everyone still remembers where they were when they heard the news that she had died."

    Really? I don't. I mean, I think I saw the headline while at the supermarket, but I don't recall the event defining my life in any way.

  • Cedric Chou Ya-Li

    Great review, James; I love the intro and conclusion above all.

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