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LONDON – Savage early reviews in the British press have already buried this glossy biopic about the anguished love life of Lady Diana Spencer, somewhat predictably, as the late royal princess remains a highly divisive figure in her class-riddled homeland. In fairness, Diana is a more enjoyable experience than the worst naysayers suggest, as might be expected from a film starring Naomi Watts under the command of Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Both have classy Oscar-nominated track records.
Bookended by tastefully discreet scenes depicting the buildup to Diana’s fatal car crash in Paris in August 1997, Hirschbiegel’s deluxe docudrama is essentially a globe-trotting escapist romance, visually rich but psychologically shallow. It also takes the lazy option of portraying the Queen of Hearts as a lonely, love-starved, fairy-tale princess — albeit with a cynical grasp of her power as a media brand. Its biggest flaw is shockingly bad dialogue that will sound comically tin-eared to most native English speakers. But the filmmakers may yet have the last laugh as Diana’s enduring global popularity could tap a potentially huge audience immune to critical sneers.
With a screenplay “inspired by” the 2001 book Diana: Her Last Love by British journalist Kate Snell, who is credited as an associate producer, the events depicted here are already well-known. In the last two years of her life, a recently divorced Diana begins a relationship with handsome, jazz-loving, chain-smoking Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (former Lost regular Naveen Andrews). She dreams of escape, marriage and a fresh start with him. But her high public profile, intensely regimented life and culture-clash values eventually drive him away.
In the film, Diana becomes increasingly obsessive and manipulative as the affair unravels, behaving like a self-confessed “mad bitch” toward Khan before vengefully rebounding into a fateful new romance with Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar). In an ominous foreshadowing of her death in Paris, she even makes a Faustian pact with the paparazzi to splash her new affair across the tabloid press in a bid to make Khan jealous. Rendered this way, the messy emotional and psychological motives of a complex historical figure are reduced to simplistic soap opera.
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All conventional biopics are restrained by prosaic facts, of course, or at least by plausible fabrication. But many similar films about recent British history, notably The Queen and The Iron Lady, have overcome this problem with dramatic license and mischievous wit. By contrast, Diana is so woefully devoid of illuminating insight, so clotted with clunky dialogue and bald exposition, that it frequently lapses into unintended comedy. Screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys is clearly the weak link here. Some of his lines are so wincingly wooden, they leave you full of admiration toward the cast for delivering them with straight faces.
Unlike The Queen, Diana also squanders a golden opportunity to dissect the bizarre personalities and factions within Britain’s dysfunctional monarchy — Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth are entirely absent from the drama, while Princes William and Harry only appear fleetingly in a single scene. Nor does the script attempt to place Diana within any larger historical or political context. With the benefit of hindsight, more interrogation of the prickly culture clash between her Western values and Khan’s disapproving Muslim family might have lent this story an extra contemporary resonance.
Within these limitations, however, Diana is a perfectly palatable slab of superior bio-soap. It looks and feels luxurious, with handsome location shooting in Mozambique, Croatia and Pakistan from Hirschbiegel’s regular cinematographer Rainer Klausmann, and an unusually muted orchestral score co-written by Steven Soderbergh regular David Holmes.
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Watts rises above the gauche script with an unshowy and nuanced performance, capturing Lady Di’s not-quite-royal accent and knowingly coy body language without resort to caricature. Alas, Andrews is not so deft, mugging stiffly through leaden lines about Persian poetry and the mystical allure of heart surgery: “You don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you.” Woah! Like, deep, dude.
Despite those brutal early reviews, Diana is not awful enough to be an enjoyably kitsch train wreck; it’s too conventional and reverential to give the late princess the full dramatic deconstruction her iconic status demands. Halfway between a guilty pleasure and a missed opportunity, it makes the crucial mistake of treating curious viewers like deferential subjects, demanding far more sympathy than it deserves.
Production companies: Ecosse Films, Scope Pictures, Le Pacte, Film i Vast, Filmgate Films
Producers: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae
Starring: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Charles Edwards, Geraldine James, Juliet Stevenson, Cas Anvar
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writer: Stephen Jeffreys, based on Diana: Her Last Love by Kate Snell
Cinematographer: Rainer Klausmann
Editor: Hans Funck
Music: David Holmes, Keefus Ciancia
Rated 12A (U.K.), 113 minutes
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