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

1.00

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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there