Princess Diana biopic ‘tasteless in every sense’ (w/gallery)

Published: September 10, 2013
Diana Hasnat Khan

The world film premiere of Diana, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, was screened in London on September 05, 2013. Neil Mockford/FilmMagic

ALLISON PEARSON
DAILY TELEGRAPH

It’s four o’clock on the fifth floor of Claridge’s, and the Diana movie is in trouble. I am here to interview Naomi Watts about her star turn as the Princess of Wales. “There’s been a change of plan,” the PR explains briskly. “You’ll be interviewing Naomi and the director Oliver Hirschbiegel,” she says without explanation.

As I have been up until the small hours watching highlights of Watts’s career (the masterpiece Mulholland Drive, a tender turn as the teeny blonde cupped in King Kong’s hairy hand, a recent gruelling portrait of a tsunami survivor in The Impossible), this is bad news. Even by the paranoid standards of movie junkets, something is obviously very wrong. As the last interviewer of the day, I’m guessing that the actress has had some uncomfortable questions about her decision to play the Princess, and Hirschbiegel has been brought in to direct the flak away from her and talk Germanly about camera angles. Danke schon.

It’s not till I get home a few hours later that I discover Watts had actually walked out on an interview earlier with Simon Mayo for his Radio 5 Live show. This does rather explain the mood of the Diana PR team, roughly as chilled as the crew on the Titanic an hour after the ship hit the iceberg.

It becomes clear that I am in the middle of a damage-limitation exercise, when the producer explains that the film is not a Hollywood biopic. “It’s a British movie, made by a British company,” he says. I’m not sure how that makes it better. If anything, it’s worse.

As Brits, they should have known that any attempt to portray the Princess would risk charges of bad taste and exploitation. (Far shrewder and safer to have opened the picture in the States, where they could have claimed that Diana was now happily living with a Hell’s Angel in Honolulu and everyone would have thought it was simply adorable.)

It’s 16 years this week since the Princess of Wales met her death in that Stygian Paris underpass, pursued by paparazzi. “The most hunted person of the modern age,” was her brother Charles’s bitterly brilliant description in his funeral address. Death diminished, but has never extinguished, the Diana coverage.

Lately, there has been a spate of renewed interest, partly because of the birth of the Princess’s first grandchild, and partly triggered by the movie, which focuses on the last two years of her life, when she had a love affair with the Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan.

The current issue of Vanity Fair has the Princess on its cover – the last and loveliest of Mario Testino’s portraits, in which she seemed to be dissolving in her own radiance. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories continue to be recycled, the latest featuring an SAS hit squad.

Bad enough to lose one’s mother so young, as the Duke of Cambridge did, never mind having to endure speculation that she was murdered by the state of which you will one day be the head. If he and Prince Harry can be forgiven for not wanting to see Naomi Watts in a bad wig on the side of every London bus, then public enthusiasm for the project is also in short supply.

“Seriously,” began a typical comment on Twitter, “what is the purpose of this new #Diana film? What does it hope to achieve? Allow the lady to Rest in Peace! Show Some Respect.”

Showing some respect for the lady is what I am expected to do at Claridge’s. Only this time it’s ruffled Hollywood royalty that demands deference. “You’re a fan of Naomi’s, right?” says the PR before opening a door into the star’s presence. “Yes, I’m a huge fan,” I say. And I am. Watts is a wonderful actress who has never quite got her due. Doomed to play second fiddle to her fellow Australian friend Nicole Kidman, Watts is a more subtle performer, who can disappear so wholly into a role (see her cheating wife in The Painted Veil) that you hardly register it’s her at all.

Watts, who is now 45 in human years – about 64 in the age of a Hollywood leading lady – must know that time is running out. She says she turned down the part twice, but eventually the lure of such a major mainstream movie proved too great.

Watts, a perfect mini-person, is tucked into the far corner of a plump Claridge’s sofa alongside the voluble, bald Hirschbiegel. She is smiling and friendly, but I can practically see the frantic speech bubble above her head. “What the hell have I done?”

I congratulate her on her bravery in moving from a tsunami film to the shark-infested waters of Diana imitation. Watts laughs. “It was very daunting. Normally when you’re inventing a character, you start from the inside. With Diana, I had to go in the reverse direction. Dealing with the most famous woman of our time, I had to get the look, the walk and the talk as familiar as possible.”

Hirschbiegel butts in to say that Naomi’s resemblance to the Princess is spooky. “Sometimes I felt I was watching a ghost,” he says. “It’s not just the technical side of it, it’s not about a nose or hair, at least half of it is coming from within. She becomes that character – it’s in the eyes, basically.”

He’s right. The film was panned universally yesterday, but critics were so busy relishing the awful dialogue that they didn’t mention quite how good Watts is, how uncannily she captures the Princess’s mannerisms. Although the actress is five inches shorter, she does the flirtatious sideways glances and lowered-eyelid bashfulness perfectly, not to mention that tiny wry twist of the lips which was the Princess’s punctuation when awkwardness overcame her.

Few actors, let alone foreign ones, can enter the OK-yah groves of Sloanedom and emerge intact. Watts, who lived on Anglesey till she was 14 and still has a British passport, is the Princess to a breathy tee. No actress could possibly have done the part better; whether it should have been done at all is another matter.

The main problem with Diana is that it is tasteless. I don’t just mean crass and exploitative. The whole thing is so painfully well-intentioned and saccharine that it lacks any taste or flavour. The Princess’s relationship with Khan (played by the divine Naveen Andrews) is like a doctor and princess book from the Mills & Boon stable.

There is no sign of the borderline-bonkers woman who made hundreds of nuisance calls to another crush, the art dealer Oliver Hoare. Because Dodi Fayed spoils the film’s thesis that the Princess was still in love with Hasnat Khan when she died, the hapless Dodi is given a non-speaking part, which is strange when you consider that the Princess spent the last few weeks of her life in a relationship with him. The film also deliberately ignores the central relationship of the Princess’s life – with her boys.

There is a brief glimpse of William and Harry saying goodbye to their mother at an airport, but otherwise she is shown as a singleton with a retinue of healers. “It somehow felt as if we would step over a line that didn’t feel right,” explains Hirschbiegel. “It was very important to show that Diana was a loving mother, but it just becomes something different when you see her do that with the actual boys because they are still alive . . . It felt wrong.”

So the film lacks the courage of its own exploitativeness. It is happy to depict love scenes, the truth of which can only be known by two people, one of whom is now tragically dead. And Hasnat Khan, who was pictured a few days ago, alive and tubby and living in Brentford, has said it is “completely wrong” and “based on gossip”.

“Yeah, but we did thorough research,” says Hirschbiegel. A man previously best known for directing Downfall, a celebrated film about Hitler, he admits he didn’t know anything about the Princess before he took the project on. “I never cared about her, to be honest. I was surprised by how many facets I discovered.”

A German with imperfect English and no previous knowledge of the Princess of Wales seems an odd choice of director, but then this is a very bizarre film. When I tell Hirschbiegel that most of the royal reporting he calls “research” is completely invented, he winces, but Watts lets out an uproarious laugh. If she found out that the princes were upset by her portrayal of their mother, would she be upset?
“Of course I’d feel bad about it,” she says nervously. “At the same time, they’re not boys anymore. They’re men. They’re aware of the level of interest that’s still there. But, you know, I’m sure they’d expect that, with someone who is that famous and creates that much interest. It’s a piece of history which was sure to be documented at some point.”

A piece of history Diana is not. A perfectly acceptable piece of tosh on ITV3 is more like it, if you were doing the ironing on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

It would be different if they had waited a century, when the familiar would have had time to crystallise into legend. The producers know what they have on their hands: Diana goes straight to DVD a week after its release.

Not for the last time, the Princess of Wales is being exploited. But don’t blame the leading lady. Poor Naomi Watts. She is a swan in a turkey.

‘Diana’ is on general release from September 20

The Daily Telegraph

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