The producers of Diana made every effort not to let me into a screening of the film. Now, after buying a ticket on Friday afternoon, I understand why.
It’s hard to imagine how a movie about history’s most turbulent, highly strung, beleaguered celebrity princess could have been turned into something so tension-free and oddly suburban.
Naomi Watts plays Diana as a sweet-natured, wistful, half-wit. The princess was no rocket scientist, it is true, but she also had a cunning, intuitive intelligence that ran rings around her advisers. And it would be hard for any actress to match Diana in beauty. Watts does a good, blushing sideways glance and has her flat upper class intonations off to a tee. But she just isn’t tall enough. Diana towered like Barbarella. When she strode into a restaurant in a short skirt and three inch high heels, she was comic-book arresting with her shimmering hair and peach soft skin. She oozed breeding too. The Windsors were middle class compared to her own Spencer lineage, something you never feel about Watt’s Hallmark Di.
The film centers around the two years after Diana’s divorce from Charles in 1995, when the princess was trying to remake her life and image after she was stripped of her HRH title. This is the time she was conducting a secret, then not-so-secret, affair in London with the Pakistani heart surgeon Doctor Hasnat Khan, whom Diana always referred to as The One. (He’s played not too embarrassingly here by a paunchy, jocular Naveen Andrews.)
That’s not a bad moment in her story to dramatize as those final years of Diana’s life saw her at her very best and her very worst. On the one hand, she was conniving and materialistic with a need, as she put it, for “all the toys,” the private planes, boats, and islands that protected her security and status. On the other, she was the Princess of Hearts, striving to find a role to make the world a better place. The workaholic Dr. Khan, with his dedication to the medical profession, offers the hint of how Diana might have evolved if she had not died in the Paris tunnel amidst the paparazzis’ electric storm.
Khan was a serious man for whom Diana wanted to do serious things. Under his influence, her generous humanitarian instincts—that the royals dismissed as “stunts”—began to shape into something more thoughtful. Thanks to him she was more willing to invest the time to understand the facts and policy issues of the causes that moved her. Her famous walk—twice—through the half cleared landmine field in Angola was enormously brave and made a lasting impact. But somehow in this always bathetic movie, Diana’s Angola walk becomes the Oscar’s red carpet with IEDs.
As the movie’s soporific romance with Khan progresses, you realize it’s not just the awful dialogue that makes this film so bad. It’s the complete absence of any context for what we are watching.
Clearly, we have been spoilt by Stephen Frears and Helen Mirren with The Queen. But a film about Diana that doesn’t give us any sense of the princess’s tireless feud with the British Royal family is like making Lone Survivor without the firefight.
Diana was driven, above all, by payback. It wasn’t only Hasnat Khan she was trying to make jealous with the Fayed cruise. It was Prince Charles. Shortly before the trip, HRH enraged her by hosting a 50th birthday party for Camilla at Highgrove, the prince and princess’s former marital home—a clear indication he was bringing Camilla “out” so as to marry her. Posing for “stolen shots” in those revealing swimsuits in the south of France was another way for Diana to rub Camilla’s face in how hot Charles’s ex wife looked. There’s more juicy conflict the film makers didn’t plumb—Diana, at that time, was at war with her own family too. Her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, by then a drunk given to calling up her daughter with tirades in the middle of the night, was appalled that the princess was now dating a Muslim. In the period of Diana’s death, the two had not spoken in many months.
The film is so terrified of making Diana anything less than a gauzy romantic victim, it entirely misses opportunities for black humor. It shows a News of the World photographer snapping her as she leaves The Royal Brompton Hospital in the early hours of the morning after a surprise, stalker-like visit to Khan. Diana seizes the phone from the photographer to speak to senior royal reporter, Clive Goodman. (Goodman, fyi, was known as the Eternal Light because he never went home and has since served four months for phone hacking.) She tells Goodman she likes to visit the hospital incognito overnight to comfort terminal patients.
It doesn’t show, however, the quintessential Diana payoff. Goodman happily serves up her lie to News of the World readers under the headline “My Secret Nights as an Angel” thus giving birth to the tabloid legend of Diana as a compulsive ambulance chaser and death groupie. (The satirical magazine Private Eye suggested patients should now wear discs inscribed with the words “in the event of a loss of consciousness do not allow me to be visited by the Princess of Wales.”)
Even more of a loss to the complexities of the drama, however, is that we never see in the film how deeply off balance Diana’s obsession with Hasnat Khan really was. She was the girlfriend from hell. The scene in which she shows up at his chaotic apartment while he’s out and cleans it up for him was not, as implied here, charming Marie Antoinette role-playing. It was the actions of a desperate, wounded stalker who couldn’t leave him alone. Her fantasy of their leaving London for a jet set humanitarian life in Australia or South Africa was delusional. The writer Clive James once suggested to me that Diana believed “there was some kind of enchanted place called Abroad, where she could be understood and lead a normal life.”
In this movie, Diana is so boring you actually believe she could have achieved it.