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
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
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.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz