Well-Acted Diana Frustratingly Skin Deep
Diana hasn’t exactly been well-received by the worldwide critical establishment. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s (Downfall) latest focuses on the final two years of the late Princess of Wales’ life, purporting that her relationship with British-Pakistani heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan was the romance that defined her. It presents a thesis that this relationship freed her from being under the Royal Family’s thumb, allowing the Princess the opportunity to become a universally beloved humanitarian the world came to adore.
As soapy as that sounds, personally I didn’t find this look at Diana’s last days nearly as unbearable or as schmaltzy as it had been proclaimed it to be. Anchored by a smooth, effortlessly naked performance by two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts as the Princess of Wales, presenting another by Naveen Andrews as Khan that’s remarkable for a number reasons chief of which is its restraint, there is much to applaud. While the movie is far from perfect, its insights not nearly as deep or as profound as I hoped they would be, the emotional undercurrents coursing through the story still remain strong start to finish. The tears I cried at the end felt justified even if they also came hand-in-hand with a number of healthy reservations, the film doing just enough to maintain my interest all the way through until the end.
It helps that Hirschbiegel doesn’t try to do more than necessary, doesn’t add any lavish, overtly sophomoric emotionality that Diana’s story doesn’t need in order to resonate. He allows the performances to stand on their own, anyone expecting any sort of Douglas Sirk-like embellishments urged to look for their melodramatic Technicolor fix someplace else.
But I wanted more. Stephen Jeffreys’s (The Libertine) script refuses to paint outside the lines. It spends so much time with Diana and Hasnat falling in and out of one another’s arms it maddeningly soft peddles the Princess’ humanitarian works, making her efforts seem more like heartfelt afterthoughts than a full-fledged calling. Worse, by making the assumptions about her and Hasnat’s relationship that it does the screenplay also makes the case, maybe inadvertently, maybe on purpose, that she never would have become a crusader in the fight against AIDS or a devoted warrior against landmines had this man not become a part of her life. It’s like she required him to set her on this charitable path in order to make herself whole, thus somewhat negating the humanistic altruism of Diana’s work in the process.
Maybe this is also a facet of Kate Snell’s book Diana: Her Last Love, from which the script was heavily drawn from, but as I have not read it I can’t provide an answer to that question. What I do know is that, as a hypothesis, it isn’t one I’m particularly fond of and I can see how those who have come down hard on the film are so amazingly distressed by the way in which Jeffreys and Hirschbiegel have decided to analyze the relationship between Diana and Hasnat. Why she ended up in that car with Dodi Fayed, the circumstances that led her there, the things that made the Princess an icon and a fighter for human rights around the globe, it’s difficult to believe the reasons behind all of those events had everything to do with a man and possibly nothing else. It doesn’t play all that well, and the fact this is the central thesis the entire feature revolves around is a problem too massive to be easily overcome.
Thanks to the performances of Watts and Andrews, with a generous assist to Hirschbiegel’s assured, unfussy direction, I find it hard to linger all that long on the majority of my vast misgivings. This love story, however factually accurate it may or may not be, did capture my attention, and as such I was drawn into the story in ways that surprised me.
Diana still should have been better. I wanted more from the film, Hirschbiegel and his team presenting a picture of this revered woman that is frustratingly unfinished. For a life as brief yet as complex as the Princess of Wales’ proved to be, the film ends up being irritatingly minor. I can’t fully wrap my arms around it. But with performances as good these and with the emotions presented with a minimum of melodramatic excess, it’s hard for me to dismiss this effort entirely. This biographical drama got to me, and while I was disappointed by the motion picture as a whole, bits and pieces are just strong enough that I hardly regret giving this reportedly troubled production a look.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)