As I left the theatre in London after seeing Diana, only one thing flashed through my mind: I need to apologize to Madonna for calling her royal flick, W.E., a “fawning, laughably incorrect” mess. Because when it comes to a truly horrid film about the Windsor clan, nothing can top Diana.
I’d scanned the reviews and knew the British critics had been unsparing in their reaction to the 113-minute film. The Independent said the characters were “psychologically inert” and the dialogue “leaden, trite,” while the Daily Mail said it was without “the slightest aptitude for romance.” The kindest, from the Guardian, talked of “conspicuously poor dialogue in the average script” of a “excrutiatingly well-intentioned, reverential and sentimental” movie. But when it comes to royalty on film, anything short of Helen Mirren in a Peter Morgan-written classic, The Queen, tends to get short shrift. So maybe Diana wasn’t going to win an Oscar, but could it be that bad?
Within 30 seconds, the answer hit: yes, it really is that awful. A Harlequin-esque TV movie of the week about a Russian supermodel falling for a cowboy while on a Wild West photo shoot would be more believable.
It opens with Diana leaving the Ritz hotel in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997 for that fateful car ride with Dodi Fayed. She’s striding down a hallway when she stops, then dramatically looks into the camera. But there’s no tension, no frisson of danger–“Don’t get into a car driven by a drunk driver who will speed recklessly through the French capital. Wear your seat belt.”
Then it flashes back to the start of her romance with Pakistani-British heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. She’s separated from Charles, and about to give that famously ill-advised interview where she claims there were three in the marriage–her, Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. Left unsaid was that she took lovers during the marriage before her husband returned to Camilla. Or that she stalked another lover to the point that the police were involved.
Diana’s modus operandi was set: she wants something, she pursues it with a frightening intensity that would send any ordinary person running for a restraining order, then when the object of her desire raises problems, she dumps him or her and moves on. It happened time and time again in her life. By her death she was estranged from her entire Spencer family, most of her friends and had lost most of her most professional advisers. She was Icarus, flying higher and higher, irrespective of the danger.
Why Naomi Watts took the role is unknown. She believes she was channelling the late princess of Wales. Certainly she nailed her impetuous behaviour, for that’s the only explanation of why Watts signed on to the film without realizing the script was unbelievably saccharine and the characters undeveloped. Viewers never understand why Diana and Khan are attracted to each other. And that problem isn’t helped by an inexplicable jump in the script. Just as they enter into a secret relationship, the film jumps forward by a year, with Diana in Angola promoting the elimination of land mines. Why did she suddenly believe so passionately in that cause? Has Khan pushed her? There are no answers.
The movie just flits from scene to scene, with no arching theme or tension. The Diana on the big screen is an advert for the mental health services–she’s out of control as she “drops” by the hospital at 3 a.m. to see Khan coming out of surgery; after one split, when he refuses to return her calls, she breaks into his apartment and decides obsessive cleaning is the way back into his heart. She’s only happy when things are going her way. The problems–she’s a celebrity, he craves privacy, she’s Christian and mother of the future head of the Church of England, he’s from a traditional Muslim family in Pakistan–are telegraphed over and over until the final split almost comes as a relief.
Where the film comes alive is at the very end. After a mope following the breakup, she tells one of her New Age friends that she’s finally ready to love. It’s as though she’s finally grown up. But her makeover lasts just that one scene. Soon Diana, in a pique, accepts an invitation by Dodi Fayed to cruise the Mediterranean on his family yacht. Eager to hurt Khan as intensely as she was hurt by his rejection, she tips off the press so they can document the “growing relationship.” But that doesn’t maker her happy, because Khan doesn’t call (as if jumping into bed with another Muslim man would impress him or his family). She’s again miserable. And then comes that tunnel in Paris.