DIANA. Starring Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Geraldine James, Juliet Stevenson. Directed by Oliver Hirschbirgel. 109 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
Diana, Princess of Wales, was always a controversial figure, especially during the last three years of her life. She had separated from Prince Charles and was trying to live her own life, bitter at her treatment by Charles and the royal family, desperate to have more contact with her children, needy in terms of relationships. She moved into the public arena with different charitable causes and her concern about issues of land mines. And she was hounded by the paparazzi.
She was beloved by many people, called the Princess of Hearts, the object of an outpouring of national grief at her death, the subject of conspiracy theories concerning the manner of her death.
The screenplay for this film is based on a book by Kate Snell and is really a speculation about Diana’s relationship with the Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan. He has remained silent about the relationship, so the material in this film is a story, imagined in detail, of love and frustration. Ultimately, Dodi Fayed is introduced but there is a strange ambiguity in the latter part of the film about Diana’s relationship with him.
The film offers a sympathetic portrait of Diana, especially as played by Naomi Watts, who does not always look like Diana but is able to give an impersonation, with accent, body language, especially the flirtatious tilt of the head in speaking to people and in giving interviews. She seems to be a asking to be loved.
For those devoted to Diana, the sympathetic portrait may please, but going behind the scenes as well as into scenes of her intimacy with the doctor may seem too intrusive.
For those not devoted to Diana or who are neutral about her, the film does offer a dramatisation of her loneliness and her need for a relationship. It also dramatises the relentless regimentation of her life and appointments, the continual scrutiny by royal officials of what she said and what she did (especially the famous interview with Martin Bashir), and the perennial hounding by reporters and paparazzi, the callous behaviour towards her, the impertinent questioning, the never ending need for yet another photo.
But what is mysterious is Diana’s treatment of some special reporters and photographers after her separation from Hasnat Khan. She phones a reporter, allows him to take secret photographs of her, including kissing Dodi Fayad which then appear in the papers. How much was defiance? How much was a manipulation? How much was getting back at Hasnat Khan? In the great scheme of things does this really matter? How important is it have those who idolise Diana?
Naveen Andrews is particularly serious, even stolid, devoted to his work, as Dr. Khan. The credibility of his meeting Diana, the continued association, their attachment and falling in love is real enough. As is her meeting with Dr. Christian Barnard to arrange a job outside the country, something she really wanted to do, escape from England, while still seeing her children. She goes to Australia for a memorial for Dr. Victor Chang. She goes to Boston for heart foundation social. She goes to Angola to campaign about land mines.
There is also an interesting sequence where she goes to Pakistan to meet the doctor’s family, happily received by many of them, feeling at home with the extended family and the children, listening to the complaints of the doctor’s mother about the sad experiences of partition. Could living outside England have really been possible? But the doctor, with reluctance, opts for his own privacy as well as maintaining his practice.
Which means that the film serves as a biopic, but without the guarantees that the details and the insights are actual because Diana is long dead and the doctor silent. Much of the treatment is in the style of popular magazines or popular television programs. But it is not quite enough for a valid and useful study of Diana, not enough insights into her personality.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 10 2013.