Oliver Hirschbiegel either directed Diana, his biopic about the last two years of the late Princess of Wales’ life and romance with Pakistani surgeon Hasnat Khan, too late or too early.
Too late, because the interest in Diana’s life has died down since August 1997. Of course, the British media and Vanity Fair still use her for cover material from time to time and new conspiracy theories surface every August 31, but Britain has mostly moved on to Kate, William and yes, back to the Queen.
Diana feels too early because we don’t yet have enough hindsight. As a consequence, the film feels a bit like a piece of fan-fiction, and not of the well-written kind. There is nothing in Diana its target public wouldn’t have read or imagined in the pages of the hundreds of books and articles dedicated to her life, love or charitable works.
I, of course, am the target public, which is why I went to see the film despite all the bad reviews. Seeing Charles Edwards and Douglas Hodge play former Diana staffers and authors of kiss-and-tell books (Patrick Jephson and Paul Burrell respectively) was like seeing actors play out parts of my own bookshelf. Not that I’m proud of it.
Making a movie about Diana was always going to be difficult because the material is there and everyone with something to say has talked, particularly the ones who shouldn’t have. As a consequence, Hirschbiegel doesn’t cover new grounds and his work with the existing one is too poor to be enjoyable, even as cinema marshmallow.
Stephen Frears’ exploration of Diana’s death from the point of view of the Queen in The Queen worked because it adopted an unexpected angle and played on the Britain’s fascination with their monarch. It also worked because, by 2006, the Queen had returned to her position as Brits’ favourite grandma but over the same period of time, and even more since, multiple cracks had appeared in the quickly written Diana legend. Even though Naomi Watts is technically good, considering the material she was given, she’s no Helen Mirren yet.
Diana lacks the angle The Queen dared to take. It tries to cram too much in 113 minutes: her fight with Charles and the Windsors, her love for William and Harry, her indecision as to what to do with her power, her simultaneous rejection and manipulation of the press and lastly, her affair with Khan, which, to this day, is the most untold part of her life.
Had screenwriter and playwright Stephen Jeffreys picked one of these angles to focus his screenplay on, it could have worked. Or even if he’d chosen to tell it from the point of view of Khan, hit on the head by meeting “the most famous woman in the world”. Instead what we get is poor dialogues, inserted at times with known quotes. Reenactments of published pictures, whether in Angola on a minefield, fleeing paparazzi in London or kissing Dodi on the Mediterranean, act as the real thread.
The poster tagline taunts “the legend is never the whole story”, warning in the process that the film won’t be scared of clichés. Diana tries to take us behind the public façade with the help of gross symbolism. The mirror she applies her make up on at Kensington Palace, for instance, is framed with naked light bulbs, as in dressing rooms. We get it: she put on her public face and personality before facing the world.
The foreboding is on the same level as the symbolism. It starts in the first few minutes, with Diana, Dodi, their bodyguard and their chauffeur stopping in a Ritz corridor, on their way to the Mercedes. The princess seems unsettled, as if something had told her not to go. This looks quite ridiculous in the movie, yet considering her well-documented interest in New Age and alternative philosophies it isn’t the biggest stretch.
Hirschbiegel did get a lot of details right, if only the most obvious ones: the round handwriting for instance, or an Azagury slipcover hanging in the dressing.
Costume designer Julian Day reproduced some of Diana’s best-known outfits. He explained to Pakistan’s Daily Times that he had “help from other designers, notably one who designed for Lady Diana herself. He was inspired and helped in designing a dozen outfits for the film. I had help from Versace in reproducing one of the dresses.”
Predictably, the film ends with Khan laying flowers outside Kensington Palace. It then cuts to a black screen where you read the usual blurb about what has happened since Diana’s death, about the decreasing use of anti-personal mines since her trip to Angola and the Ottawa Treaty. Hasnat Khan is still a heart surgeon (and didn’t support the movie).
This might be Hirschbiegel’s way of saying that he treated his subject the way any movie director would treat a biopic, yet it feels ironic because the princess is still in the news. Diana transcends history, she is a pop culture icon in a way few other characters who have had movies (not documentaries) dedicated to them so far, are. It’s Carrie Bradshaw, mentioning on the day her book reviews come out that the last time she was up that early was for Diana’s wedding. It’s hundreds of people you can speak to who remember exactly where they were when they learnt she’d died.
One way or another, Diana touched people. We are interested in her persona because it is relatable. There was something egotistic in people’s love for her. Mirren’s Elizabeth II showed aspects of that way of ‘touching’ people by exploring how the Queen’s world was forced to change after her daughter-in-law’s death.
Diana makes the mistake of being about Diana, not about the flaws and the unhappiness people empathised with and felt was akin to theirs. Diana is about a celluloid, one-dimensional being nobody is actually that interested about.
Here’s another angle that could have worked: one British woman’s life signposted by Diana’s. Marriage, divorce, children, depression, rebounds, hopeless love…She’s done it and so have we. Or maybe she’s had it worse than us, a revenge of fate on somebody with such a nice background. So when we’re asked to envisage Diana in a love story whose end we already know, it becomes difficult to root for her, the bad scenario the audience is asked to accept just doesn’t work.
Diana, for all her charity work, her giving birth to the future king and her attempts at influencing the monarchy, mattered little. What did matter was the unprecedented outpouring of grief that followed her death and its effect on the nation. Trying to understand this is one of the reasons why I moved to England and Diana got me no closer to an answer.