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

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn