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Non-Review Review: Diana

Diana is a rare beast. You have to try very hard to make a biography film that is so perfectly and so calculatedly terrible. Diana isn’t the product of people who don’t care, it’s the product of people who care too much about the cynical market of prestige biography films. As such, with focus-group precision targeting, the film hits what might be the most bitter of sweet spots. It is both toothless and incredibly cynical; manipulative and shallow; vacuous and crammed with unnecessary and irritating detail.

Most damning of all is the way that the film seems perfectly calibrated to fit the public image of the People’s Princess, never bold enough to challenge or explore her work, her life or her legacy. Given how raw the public’s nerves are, even sixteen years after her tragic death, it might have been expecting too much to hope for a provocative or compelling exploration of one of the most iconic figures of the past three decades. However, we might have hoped it would at least be interesting.

It's a minefield...

It’s a minefield…

Oh, don’t worry. The iconic moments are all here. The flashbulbs of photographers’ cameras are constantly blinking; Diana wades into the midst of a dangerous minefield to draw the world’s attention to something we’d readily overlook; her privacy is invaded as she engages in a love affair on a lavish private yatch. However, these can’t help but feel like snapshots in a slideshow themed around Diana, a collection of scenes and sequences everybody can agree on without causing too much offense.

Where is the passion? Where is the vitality? Where is the energy or the humanity? Diana refuses to feel anything it all, perhaps worried that it might cloud the film’s judgement, or perhaps tarnish the beloved icon at the centre of the film. Naomi Watts’ Diana Spencer feels more like a paradigm or an ideal than an actual character. The moments of warmth and humanity seem to be lost. The film is almost afraid to suggest she might be anything other than flawless.

Blind adoration...

Blind adoration…

The film features her controversial BBC interview with Martin Bashir, the one that alleged Charles’ infidelity, but it conveniently avoids any of the controversial issues raised that the interview raised. She talks about her suffering and her depression, and how she felt locked out of her own marriage; we don’t hear her describe her husband and his staff as “the enemy.”

The film refuses to even consider the possibility that the interview might have been a clever media counterstrike from the media-savvy Diana Spencer, which means that it treats her as a naive fool. Her lover has to explain to her what a brilliant public relations coup she has just pulled off, and how that interview not only secured her the divorce that she wanted, but also how it advanced a long-term strategy. “I don’t do strategy,” Diana earnestly responds.

It avoids the issues with surgical precision...

It avoids the issues with surgical precision…

And so the movie makes a choice. Diana is not going to be overly cynical – instead, the script treats her as naive to a fault, doe-eyed and innocent. There are no shortage of scenes of Diana wounded and crying and wounded and running, in one of the movie’s least clumsy (but still infuriatingly simple) metaphors. See, Diana was always running? Like she did on that fateful night? Do you get it? This is what passes for depth from the script.

Of course, the script is dire. Meeting her handsome heart-surgeon lover, Diana jokes about whether or not a heart can really be broken. Discussing how he works on eight-hour surgeries, her lover coyly replies, “You don’t perform the surgery. The surgery performs you.” Woah, that’s deep. Just in case we don’t get how deep this guy is, the movie makes sure to emphasise his interest in jazz and has him quote ancient Persian philosophers.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

(All while keeping the movie grounded, of course. We can’t forget that Diana was, after all, “the People’s Princess.” Her first dialogue in the film is to send her staff home for the weekend, because she’s the best boss ever. Her date is surprised that she owns a telly, but she’s quick to assure him that she watches “Corrie” and “Eastenders.” But, of course, her favourite is Casualty. She meets her date in secret at a fast food restaurant – “Chicken Cottage”, which seems just up-market enough.)

Hasnat is the movie’s biggest flaw, because he seems to exist to belittle Diana as a character in her own right. Walking across a minefield in Angola, Diana insists that the experienced aid worker wait behind so she faces the press alone. “They’d use you to belittle me,” she suggests. Ironically, the film implies that pretty much everything the public knows and loves about Diana came from Hasnat. Which is sweet, of course, but denies Diana her own agency.

Princess of Hearts...

Princess of Hearts…

Hasnat finds himself cast in the strange dual role of love interest and mentor – almost an Obi-Wan Casanova. Phoning her in Angola, as she struggles to get the press to notice the landmine victims, he urges her, “Use your power.” He repeatedly reminds her that she is her own woman and that she can use her immense profile for good. He’s there to reinforce her, and encourage her, with the script contriving to turn his interest in jazz into a way to encourage Diana. “You improvise; that’s what you do.”

Of course, Diana is packed with characters constantly reminding Diana of just how wonderful she is, as if the collective unconscious fear might be that Diana died not knowing how loved she was. Again, it’s a sweet sentiment, but it ties the script up in knots. Even her acupuncturist offers some words of positivity. “You can’t give up on the idea of love,” she advises Diana, “because you are so good at giving it. The hardest part is receiving love.” Ugh.

The script is a clunker, in just about every sense. The dialogue, as you’ve noted, is terrible. It’s not only the really cringe-worthy love dialogue, but also the way that the film treats characters as objects who deliver exposition. The mention of a name is immediately followed by a character stating that person’s role or position or relation to the plot, in the most inorganic of manners. Hasnat mentions a man who taught him a lot about the world, Diana helpfully explains that was Hasnat’s teacher. It’s redundant and awkward.

Heart warming...

Heart warming…

The plotting is awful, reducing Diana to the protagonist in a cheesy sit-com/soap opera hybrid. We get to see her clean her lover’s apartment, reveling in the fact that this is how normal people must live. She sneaks out to Pakistan to visit her lovers family, and adores the simple pleasures of their existence. (The film also finds room for her would-be mother-in-law to attack Charles’ side of the family.)

The only hint of her media savviness comes in the final third of the film, when Diana becomes a jilted ex-lover, as if to suggest that she must be either a long-suffering angel or a bitter ex-girlfriend, and there’s no room for anything beyond those roles. It’s a very shallow and simplistic take on the character, and one at odds with the film’s decision to frame her as a doe-eyed innocent caught in a trap.

Indeed, Diana is even afraid to ironically engage with its own cynicism, and unable to really deal with the unpleasant lingering sense that this is almost as exploitative of Diana as the hunger for photos that led her to her death. There’s an unwillingness to examine that uncomfortable relationship between Diana and the press and the press and the public, an unease at exploring who was really taking advantage of whom in these troubled relationships. It’s fleetingly raised, and then quickly cast aside.

Watts the deal here?

Watts the deal here?

There is a wealth of meaty material here. What about Diana’s relationship with the Royals? What about her relationship with Charles? The custody battle over her children is brought up repeatedly, but never for an extended period of time. The film is willing to repeatedly lash out at Charles, a character who only appears via brief sound clips, but doesn’t treat him or the rest of his family as anything more than shadows on the wall, frequently derided and disparaged, but never actually explored.

Naomi Watts does the best she can with the material afforded her, but even her performance feels calculatedly cynical, a clear grab at those awards trophies that will be coming out oh-so-soon. Watts is a superb actress, but she tends to favour weaker material. After all, The Impossible was her awards-season vehicle last year, a similarly cynical and misguided effort. (Then again, if the alternative is Movie 43, I’d… well, I’d rather not watch either.)

There is a great biography of Diana to be made, one willing to explore her relationship with the press, the Royal Family and the British public. Diana simply isn’t it. Sadly, Diana seems afraid to say anything potentially controversial, and so opts to say nothing at all.

6 Responses

  1. Entertaining review of a film I probably won’t see! Loved the Obi Wan Casanova line best.

  2. Nice review Darren. I wasn’t really too stoked for this movie, and all of the negative reviews have basically confirmed why. At least Watts is good, right?

  3. What a brilliant takedown, can’t wait to see it. Although I did find a fair bit of merit in The Impossible so maybe I’m the kind of softie the film is aimed at… Doubt it though.

    • I hope you enjoy it.

      I had a hard time with The Impossible because it assumed that I could only relate to the suffering of white people. That insulted me a great deal, and seemed far too cynical and calculated.

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