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'Diana' film strips 'People’s Princess' of personality

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2013-10-03

After getting battered by the British press, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s ‘Diana’, with Naomi Watts playing Princess Diana in the last two years of her life, is about to hit French and US screens. FRANCE 24 film critic Jon Frosch offers his verdict.

Following the first London press screening of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Diana”, about Princess Di’s love affair with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Kahn, the British press was swift and scathing.

“[Diana] has died another awful death,” howled The Guardian, while The Telegraph declared the film “a special class of awful”. The most original jibe came from The Daily Mirror, which gleefully opined that “Wesley Snipes in a blonde wig would be more convincing [than star Naomi Watts]”.

If the much-anticipated film were as consistently campy as those reviews suggest, at least it might have been a guilty good time.

But Hirschbiegel’s “Diana” is nothing more, or less, than a visually glossy, dramatically limp big-screen puff piece, fashioned with bland professionalism and utterly lacking in texture or insight.

Before making his Hollywood début with “The Invasion” (2007), an enjoyably silly, if disposable, adaptation of sci-fi novel “The Body Snatchers”, the German Hirschbiegel was best known for “Downfall” (2004), which chronicled the final, bunker-bound days of Hitler and his entourage. The film was confidently staged, but conceptually problematic; investing the demise of the Nazi regime with tragic undertones felt misguided, as did perfunctory attempts to humanise the growling, grotesque Führer by showing his acts of kindness toward his dog, chef and secretary.

But “Diana” suffers from a more flagrant tone deafness than “Downfall”, while offering little of that film’s dynamism or detail.

A ‘garden of love’ not worth visiting

Movies about iconic figures, whether loved, loathed, or objects of ambivalence, are tricky to pull off – especially when, as in the case of “Diana”, people who were close to her are still alive and influential. A notable exception, Stephen Frears’ terrific “The Queen”, used a specific crisis (then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s mission to prod Queen Elizabeth II into making a public statement on Diana’s death) as a way to bring the title character to prickly, poignant life.

Instead of distilling Diana’s last two years alive -- when the paparazzi’s hounding hit its peak -- into a claustrophobic thriller, for example, or a character portrait that imagines what the reserved-seeming princess was like behind closed doors, screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys has opted for the most booby-trapped path of all: romantic melodrama.

And so we endure cutesy, somewhat asinine scenes of two saintly souls, the wounded Diana and the gentle Dr. Kahn (played by former “Lost” star Naveen Andrews), in which she admiringly watches him devour a burger, whispers sweet nothings along the lines of “I like the way your hands feel on my face”, and listens to him babble about a “garden of love”.

The relationship between Diana and Hasnat is indeed as weakly written as that in any sub-par Hollywood rom-com (though at least those feature the occasional spectacular gross-out gag or colourful supporting character to liven things up).

One-dimensional Diana?

Hirschbiegel’s fluid, if unremarkable, camerawork keeps things moving briskly from one moment to the next, never pausing to let us take the measure of the woman or the emotionally dire state of her life (apart from the obligatory shot of Diana staring woefully at her reflection in the vanity mirror). Estranged from the royal family, with only monthly visits from her sons, alone at home but swarmed outside, anguished and insecure, Diana, as written here, somehow manages to come off as a woman with virtually no personality. There are few jolts or jagged edges to her suffering -- only poses and postures meant to convey delicately contained distress.

Naomi Watts

Is the movie positing that the “People’s Princess” was almost exactly the same in private – refined, soft-spoken, kindly, give or take a few desperate moments – as she was in interviews and on red carpets? Whether or not that is an accurate notion is beside the point; it simply doesn’t make for gripping cinema.

Not even an actress as hungry and resourceful as Watts can get very far with such a superficially conceived character.

Toward the end of the film, as Diana’s relationship with Hasnat frays (in a handful of earnest fight scenes that don’t even begin to approach the rawness of real heartbreak), she starts frolicking with Dodi Al-Fayed on his yacht, and we get a welcome glimpse of a slightly more complex woman. In one brief moment, she phones a journalist and, with the teasing confidence of a practiced flirt, tips him off as to her whereabouts. For a second, the movie touches on a frequently tossed around, but nevertheless compelling idea: that Diana was not just a do-gooder and a victim, but also a cunning co-author of her own myth.

Too bad Hirschbiegel and Jeffreys tiptoe away from that promising angle, just as they do from the suggestion that Diana’s split from Hasnat was partly because of the supposed incompatibility of their respective Christian and Muslim backgrounds.

Soapy, safe and skin-deep, “Diana” ultimately begs a rather damning question: if the filmmakers were so squeamish about telling this story, why bother in the first place?

“Diana”, currently in UK cinemas, will be released in France on October 2 and in the US on November 1.
 

Date created : 2013-09-29

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