Film Review: Diana - Flat biopic fails to conjure interest, let alone controversy


Even Naomi Watts can't rescue director Oliver Hirschbiegel's latest effort

The German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made the epic Downfall, about Hitler's final days, looked an intriguing choice to helm this biopic of Princess Diana. Here after all was a film-maker who grasped the drama not just of bunker mentality and delusional narcissism, but also the way an individual could bewitch an entire country into soft-headed adoration. Who knew what other parallels Hirschbiegel might unearth between these two iconic subjects?

Sadly, the reality has not matched expectation: this is "Shortfall" rather than Downfall. Where his brilliant Hitler film offered Sturm and Drang, Diana opts for Mills and Boon, a would-be tragic romance that spares us nothing in soppiness or banality. It is difficult to fathom what the screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys was briefed to come up with, but speakable dialogue was evidently not part of the deal. The characters in this movie talk an English that seems to have been translated, badly, from another language. It will provoke much mirthless laughter.

Hirschbiegel isn’t the only top-drawer talent on board. Naomi Watts was stupendous in her breakout movie for David Lynch, Mulholland Dr., and if there's been nothing quite like it in the years since she still brings a polish to the dull and daft: she was terrific in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and in last year’s disaster weepie The Impossible. This role, however, is beyond her; it would be beyond anyone. Her facial resemblance to Diana isn’t strong, though she does her best to catch the coy uptilted gaze, the outward poise, the inward fragility. She doesn’t embarrass herself; the script does that for her.

It opens on that fatal August night in Paris, 1997, before flashing back a couple of years to her troubled affair with a Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). Diana, separated from Charles for three years, struggles to keep this private and personable man away from the flashbulb glare in which she has lived her entire adult life. She disguises herself in a black wig to go out on dates with Hasnat, she hides him under a blanket in the car home, she even visits his large extended family back in Pakistan. But their relationship unravels because, as the film keeps reminding us, she's "the most famous woman in the world" – and the paps won't give her a moment's peace.

Of course it's not as simple as that, and the film occasionally gets up off its knees to suggest that Diana was, or had learned to become, a shrewd manipulator. In the run-up to her TV interview with Martin Bashir, we see her practising her sorrowful phrases and martyred expressions in the mirror. Later, she summons her pet paparazzo to catch exclusive shots of herself on Dodi's yacht, the strongest indication of the dance of death she conducted with Fleet Street's finest: she despised the attention, and craved it at the same time. Dodi, incidentally, is portrayed here as a mere stooge, a rebound fling intended to make Hasnat jealous.

Hirschbiegel wants to present Diana as a loving yet lonely soul, devoted to her young sons but piteously excluded from a grown-up relationship. Her court remains pretty vague: Geraldine James plays a masseuse who does a bit of Irish blarney on the side, Juliet Stevenson plays an older friend who picks her up from small-hours misery, and Douglas Hodge is woefully underemployed as her butler Paul Burrell. (One imagines this nugatory part will greatly displease the actual Burrell, so there is a silver lining.) As Hasnat, Naveen Andrews hasn't much to work with, though he decently keeps a straight face when musing on his job: "You don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you." Come again? Diana seems one of those better suited to dealing with "humanity" rather than human beings in particular; perhaps it was this impersonal sense of charity that prompted her to take up causes in Bosnia, Angola, Australia. When she does her landmine walk in front of the press one gets a vivid sense of her courage and compassion, but then the film over-eggs it with a scene in which, Christ-like, she touches a blind man. (It stops short of suggesting she might have cured him.)

That the film has nothing new to tell us about its subject is a minor drawback. That the woman seems barely credible is a more serious shortcoming. But what is surely the central failure is its desperate inability to make her even interesting. The public side we know about; but what of the individual whose personal charm conquered so many? The script hasn’t a clue. It looks especially weedy when set against other recent biopics of prominent English women; you may have hated Thatcher in The Iron Lady but you couldn't have found her boring. So too with The Queen. The entertaining biopic goes beyond a mere recital of the known facts and imagines the play of personality in company. How, for instance, did an average night in Prince Charles's company go? The film's not telling – Chas is discreetly sidelined.

Watts's incarnation of the Princess is so wan and flat you wonder how anyone fell for her at all. Where one might have hoped for a wry sense of humour there is only self-pity ("I’ll never be happy again") and insincere self-deprecation ("I've been a mad bitch").

It all seems a long time ago now – the shock of the death, the recriminations, the national nervous breakdown that followed. You don't hear people talk much of Diana's "saintliness" anymore, which is a good thing. Granted a little perspective on her, a purposeful biopic would have tried to conjure a real woman from the babble of myth and gossip. This movie, on the contrary, has placed her even further out of reach.

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game