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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor