Film review of ‘Diana’: Not a right royal mess, but this drama drags

It’s now 16 years since the former Princess of Wales came to an unfortunate end in Dodi Fayed’s Mercedes Benz following a high-speed crash in a Parisian tunnel. Diana details the two years leading up to those events. What might surprise some is the film’s assumption that Fayed was nothing more than a pawn in the princess’s efforts to inspire jealousy in her previous lover, Hasnat Khan (Andrews), around whom this narrative revolves. Having supposedly met in hospital when Diana was visiting a friend in post-operative recovery, the princess becomes immediately love-struck by the heart surgeon. What follows is a relatively drab two-year, on-off relationship between this pair of opposites, during which we hear repeated protests to the tune of: “But we can’t, you’re the most famous woman in the world” and “I am a doctor, my work is my priority”, with a little “you don’t understand what it’s like to be the most photographed woman in the world,” for good measure. Portions of the dialogue are weak, but the claustrophobia of a life spent constantly in the public eye, or hiding from it, is effectively communicated.

This film is inspired by Kate Schnell’s book, Diana: Her Last Love. The book was published in 2001 but this is the only major studio Diana film to have emerged since her death. A project like this usually spawns at least one suspiciously coincidental sibling. For example, only recently there’s been a pair of Liz Taylor/Robert Burton films, two Hitchcock flicks (courtesy of Hollywood and BBC4) and the upcoming Nelson Mandela biopics Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom and Winnie. It’s surprising then that Diana is an only child. Certainly this film is light years away from the risible Princess in Love (1996), an American made-for-TV movie about the supposed romance between Diana and Captain James Hewitt. It does, however, share its narrative approach with that film, as with most other biopics, by focusing on the supposed ‘big love’ of the subject’s life. We’re also given the increasingly tried-and-tired ‘end at the beginning’ device.

In its favour, that first scene is the best of the film: a wordless, dreamlike sequence in which we follow behind a woman we know to be Diana. We’re not yet allowed to see her face, thus heightening our curiosity and creating a tangible sense of foreboding – of death or misfortune stalking her. It’s sad then that thereafter, the film remains engaging but becomes utterly staid. The writing feels distracted and whimsical – this, in turn, has a degravitating effect on the performances. Watts and Raveen struggle admirably, but regularly appear as marionettes uttering lines that rarely ring true. The pair are not without charm but devoid of real chemistry; their mutual curiosity is made conceptually believable, they both occupy worlds so different from the other as to appear exotic, and their love for each other is relatively convincing, even if the spark of their attraction is not.

There are also scenes that show Diana’s commendable work for charitable causes (such as her calls for banning the use of landmines), and in doing so, the film perhaps strengthens its status as a tribute and weakens potential accusations of exploitation. One imagines that director Hirschbiegel was chosen on the evidence of his skill in bringing to life real historical events. In Downfall (2004), a depiction of Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker, the German director crafted a brilliantly restrained, insightful film. I hope that won’t be his last important work, because Diana is not the next.

Diana (7)

Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel; UK/France drama, 2013, 130 mins; Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Juliet Stevenson, Art Malik
Premiered September 26
Playing nationwide