The Princess of Wales: The failure to do justice to Diana and why she is no queen of arts

Her tragedy should have inspired great works, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

The new film Diana is, by turns, vivid, bathetic, moving, torrid and subversive. It is based on the book Her Last Love by Kate Snell, published in 2000, and, even if only half-true, the story is extraordinary. A few weeks before the princess died in August 1997, she had, once again, been disappointed by a man. Hasnat Khan, a heart surgeon, was, apparently, the love of her life. Khan loved her deeply too, but knew the relationship was doomed. He was Pakistani, a dedicated doctor and a private man. She had no private life. It ended in tears and she threw herself into the waiting arms of Dodi Fayed. Then came the crash and she was no more.

From a miserable childhood, Diana Spencer entered a bad arranged marriage with a faithless prince and gave him children. Then she was cast adrift. While trying to find her new self, she fell for Khan. Millions around the world were bewitched by her. She was vulnerable and wily, had beauty and charisma, and an intuitive compassion for war and other victims. Fans and foes alike have an imagined princess in their heads. Can art ever imitate such a life?

Unsurprisingly, the movie has been slated and so too its German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, seen as an interloper. Last week its star, Naomi Watts, reportedly cut short an interview for BBC Radio 5 in reaction to what she perceived as hostile questioning from the presenter Simon Mayo.  Prevailing values and perceptions have also played a part in the critical response. Immediately after Diana’s death, Britons were less moon-eyed about the monarchy. But by dint of skilful PR the royals have deleted the unhappy princess from their narrative. The monarchs are back on top. Stephen Frears’ film The Queen (2006) was a hit because it chimed with the new monarchist mood. Now anyone upsetting the restored order is asking for trouble.  

The new film Diana does that by reminding audiences of the cruelty of the Royal Family towards the princess; how, after her divorce from Charles in 1996, the family only allowed her access to her boys every five weeks. Naomi Watts conveys her desolate isolation perfectly. Several invitees at the pre-release screening were derisive, tittering and guffawing, especially during the sex scenes. Some of the lines are indeed embarrassingly bad, and Naveen Andrews, as Khan, is often stiff and unappealing. But there are moments too of such tender intimacy that you feel you are intruding. Some laughed when Andrews quoted lines from the soulful old poet Rumi, and again when Watts watched him operate on a patient. I wondered then whether the laughter stemmed from unconscious disquiet. Was it too much for some to watch Diana being made love to by a “P*ki”?

This is the tenth docudrama on the Princess of Wales. Catherine Oxenburg, the American actress who played her in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982), and Nicola Formby in The Women of Windsor (1992), received goodish reviews. But today’s audiences have cynicism in their guts. Romantic tragedies on film no longer evoke high emotion.    

Is Diana served any better by the novel? Not so far. Monica Ali’s Untold Story, in which an implausible Diana survives the crash and ends up in an American suburb, was a terrible disappointment. This fine writer could have given us the interior life of a complex heroine but didn’t, perhaps couldn’t. Except for a few self-published books there has been no fictional exploration of the most alluring woman in the 20th century. No poetry either. Our wordsmiths don’t care or don’t dare.   

Visual representations in the form of portraits and busts have been plentiful but dull. The photographer Mario Testino, in his pictures for Vanity Fair, managed to catch Diana’s spirit, showing her happy and flirty, unbound. A bronze sculpture by the Canadian artist Yuri Firstov puts her in a tiara and ballgown, a lifeless woman playing a role. There is now a bronze monument in Harrods too – a lifesize Diana and Dodi, dancing while an albatross hovers above them. Commissioned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, it is a public symbol of the private loss of a father.  

Popular culture is trite or indifferent. Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind” at Diana’s funeral, but he wrote it with Marilyn Monroe in mind. No songs have been created for the betrayed princess. Museums of fashion flaunt her dresses. The memorial exhibition at Althorp House, her childhood home, is closing; the watery memorial in Hyde Park is dull.

The one artistic tribute that was fully worthy of Diana’s rare beauty and nature was the forest of flowers and simple notes laid before the gates of Kensington Palace, an expression of true and unmediated grief. I went there – in spite of my republicanism – to be with this profusion of people, men and women, black and white. Nothing since has matched the power of that spontaneous shrine. And when the final scene in the film Diana showed Khan laying flowers, I wept all over again. September 1997 in front of Kensington Palace, as people gather to lay flowers on the eve of Princess Diana's funeral

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate