I don’t sleep well on planes. But I don’t like watching films on those tiny dim screens they give you on long flights. So, I only watch films that I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to see: anything else, I wait for an opportunity to watch it under better conditions. That’s why, on a recent return journey from the Philippines, I ended up, bleary-eyed between timezones, watching Diana. I had twelve hours to kill, and this movie barely maimed two of them. Regular readers of this blog will know that I really like Naomi Watts, but following her acting career is like supporting your local, lower-league football team: the loyalty is taken for granted, and you know from past glories that there is greatness there, but you have to watch a number of crushing, humiliating defeats every once in a while.It doesn’t bother me that Watts barely looks like Diana. As I noted in an earlier post, the trend for pre-selling biopics by releasing uncanny (heavily manipulated) images of the star in full make-up and costume is a regular marketing tactic: “we’re invited to marvel at the close physical resemblance between actor and subject, to infer that the casting has been validated, and thus to begin anticipating the arrival of the movie, safe in the knowledge that it is being well-handled; the validating resemblance is designed to prove that the film is respectfully attuned to the legacy concerns of the beloved subject.” The aim of an actor playing a real subject is to capture something of their essence, perhaps even to emphasise particular aspects that we hadn’t noticed before, and not to try and mimic a baseline version of a public figure: we won’t all agree anyway on the defining characteristics of a celebrity, so it seems pointless to go headlong down the impersonation route. Watts does not attempt an impersonation, except in the scenes where we see her performing well-documented public events, such as the landmines campaign or her interviews with Martin Bashir, which the film presents as her calculated retaliation against the royal family. In those moments, Watts gives some of the bashful, blushing-from-beneath-the-fringe awkwardness that made that footage so unsettling, a little too studied. But Watts’s rendition of that moment is toned down, it is less performed than the original, and we’re given the peculiar example of a biopic that is trying to be looser and less affected than the public profile of its subject.
Diana starts quite well, giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the former Princess’s daily life might have been: away from the photographers, she is alone in St. James’s Palace, in a dull holding bay between a grasping public, a fussy staff and mundane routine. It’s a modern and quotidian depiction of the princess-in-the-tower mythos. But perhaps daunted by the task of revealing a “real Diana”, and blinded by the utter familiarity of her image, the film’s strategy is to normalise her. I’m sure Diana had an everyday existence that we never got to see, but the film overplays its efforts to ingratiate her to us and make her seem like one of us: any references to her separateness, by virtue of her extraordinary, inherited privilege, are laughed off as quirks and foibles. She seems able to shrug off the weight of the world like it’s nothing more burdensome than a tough day at the office that can be dissolved with a deep sigh and a glass of wine. And things get much worse when Diana strikes up a tricky romance with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan.It could have been a searing drama about the impossibility of love under the media searchlights, but it opts for the Notting Hill technique of making the untouchable heroine loveably daffy. She learns how to cook to impress a man. She orders hamburgers when the fancy dinner she cooked goes wrong. She professes her love for “watching telly”, especially “Corrie” (you can just smell the “local research”!). Her favourite show is Casualty – oh, the irony. There’s even a scene of a lovers’ tryst in Chicken Cottage, made possible by Diana’s disguise of a brunette wig. It’s hard to believe Diana could walk alone at night, or hang out unrecognised at Ronnie Scott’s, or eat at Chicken Cottage. The frequency with which we see her leaving the house unaccompanied tends to play down the very real hounding she receives from the press in other scenes.
This was never going to be a highpoint of Watts’ acting career, since the material is a lightweight treatment of world-famous events, and she struggles to bring her Diana beyond the stage of glib portraiture: she’s not impersonating the princess, but instead trying to rediscover her as a human being by toning down the hysterical fawning aura that clung to Diana like a Ready Brek glow. These efforts are hampered by the film’s attempts to rediscover her as a romantic heroine. Scenes of Diana trying her hand and bumbling as she tries to carve out a proper career for herself, as when she tiptoes across a minefield for a photo-op, are a little too Bridget-Jones, missing a chance to deliver a meaningful shock a scene like this: here is a woman so paradoxically mediatised that she has to endanger her life to get the press, who constantly stare at her, to pay any substantial sort of attention. More alarmingly, the film blows off its own legs by making Diana’s moments with sick children and starving Africans (on a trip to Italy, she touches a blind man like a tentative messiah) look like self-serving acts to get the boy she fancies to notice her.I won’t draw too much attention to the film’s terrible dialogue, except to say that a little piece of Naveen Andrews’ own heart must have withered and died as he found himself describing his love of surgery: “You don’t perform the operation. The operation performs you.” He also gets to wax lyrical about jazz, and his attitude to improvisation sounds like a neat antithesis to Diana’s regimented life. But we don’t really get to see her put it into practice, since the steps she takes to change her public profile on his advice are carefully calculated and arranged, not ad-libbed in the moment.I also don’t want to push the Kidman/Watts comparisons too hard either, since they’re obviously note deliberate, but it is a delicious coincidence that they are both starring in critically derided biopics by European directors (Diana’s Oliver Hirschbiegel previously directed Kidman in another stilted turkey, The Invasion), about blonde princesses who died in cars.
The hypocrisy at the centre of the film is that it agonises over the way the press attention makes a love affair impossible to sustain, while also being, as a fictional depiction of Diana’s intimate private life, part of the problem. Maybe there was no way to make this film. It’s pointless to make Diana loveable in a romcom sense because she was already adored. Maybe that very adoration is what needs analysis, but the British have finished agonising over their strange reactions to Diana’s death. This film should have been made 15 years ago. With its stilted dialogue and unexamined fascination with rich people doing nice things in expensive places, it looks like it was.The tone of the film is ill-suited to one which everyone knows will end suddenly, violently. The British paparazzi are a monolithic mob shouting “ma’am” like needy baby birds, and there’s a slightly insidious suggestion that Diana colluded with the press to get Khan’s attention, and that she operated a kind of code of honour with one particular photographer. The film doesn’t have enough bite to implicate the media in her death, not to depict the irony of a dying woman whose last words were reportedly “leave me alone”. She died surrounded by photographers, as a result of the negligence of the people charged with her protection. If the film doesn’t want to apportion blame for Diana’s death, then we are left with a traditional romantic drama, built around the customary conflicts between love and duty, and capped by a brutally arbitrary ending.
Love this review as well as its premise. My film-watching instincts have become so refined over the years that I rarely watch bad films anymore and I kind of miss ’em. Like you suggest, a biopic of a hyper-publicized mega figure like Princess Di was destined to be a dicey undertaking. Naomi will be back.
Thanks, Rick. On the subject of in-flight entertainment, I’m really looking forward to Stephen Groening’s book Cinema Beyond Territory. It’ll be great to read a book-length study.
I don’t seek out bad films any more, and the most obnoxious films I encounter are those that come with slick packaging and vast marketing campaigns to hide the lack of creative imagination. I’m sure I’m getting more curmudgeonly as I get older and shorter on leisure time: I don’t appreciate having it wasted! But I would have loved to have found a positive angle on Diana, even some camp trashy fun, but aside from the occasional chuckle (Chicken Cottage!), I couldn’t find much to cling on to at all. And I’m sure we’re more emotional, i.e. light-headed on planes, so we should be much easier to please.