Review: Diana

Diana seems a lovely tribute to Princess Diana, whose life was cut short in an automobile accident provoked by overzealous paparazzi in 1997. However, it falls into the trap of most biopics, which is simply a series of events rather than a compelling narrative. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys and the cast make a valiant effort though.

Opening on the night Diana (Naomi Watts) left the hotel in Paris in 1997, Diana flashes back three years to the aftermath of her separation from Prince Charles. She meets heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) and actually hits it off with him. It’s clear how significant it was for a woman in Diana’s position to form a genuine human connection, let alone a romantic one, though their relationship would be difficult in the public eye.

Any biography has a choice to make. Do we try to cram the whole life in or do we focus on a particular part of the subject’s life, as a microcosm or simply a stronger narrative than the epic life story? Both approaches are valid, both have had successes and failures. In choosing to focus on the love story between Diana and Hasnat, Diana the movie is essentially a tragic romance with the paparazzi as the villain, and that’s a little too vague to connect with.

Even with the focus on three years, it still feels like Diana is torn between wanting to make the story a human romance and wanting to show the historical perspective. As such, it leaves both sides wanting. There are great moments, but the film becomes simply a collection of moments, the familiar biopic trap.

As a humanitarian, Diana brought comfort to suffering people and the film honors that. In this period, a lot of her work was focused on raising awareness for and promoting the clearing of land mines from war zones. She was using her fame and clout to shed light on a cause that would otherwise not be sexy enough for the media. When she shares moments with a blind man, or a grieving mother, the film conveys Diana’s sincerity and the power that a simple act of love can bring to the world across language barriers and politics.

As a love story, Diana and Hasnat’s relationship fall into a series of clichés. It’s nice to see that courtship is as awkward for former royalty as it is for all of us, and Diana’s unfamiliarity with hackneyed entertainment is endearing, because she doesn’t socialize like the rest of us. She’s never suffered through bad warm-up acts at a show. Diana marvels at Hasnat’s power over life and death, which is itself a medical cliché. Look, all of this may be 100% fact-based but in a movie it comes across as shorthand, and too much shorthand is superficial.

Exclusive Interview: Diana star Naveen Andrews says he doesn’t follow the royal family, explains why he never met the real Hasnat Khan.

Diana and Hasnat face challenges from invasions of privacy and their own social and familial differences. These too are only paid superficial attention. I mean, if it weren’t based on a tragic true story, the tale of a workingman struggling to deal with his famous girlfriend’s paparazzi attention would be Notting Hill. Here, we know this was real, and deadly, but it plays like a series of narrative beats. Now it’s too much for Hasnat to handle. But he loves her so they try to make it work. But then something crosses the line. But then she apologizes to him. But then she oversteps and he can’t deal with that. It’s too many “but thens.”

Hirschbiegel directs the film well. The opening sequence captures the paranoia of being followed simply by pulling the camera back. It made me want to show this one shot to all the directors using handheld shakycam. See, that’s how a camera works. Even an establishing shot of Paris is breathtaking. He shows us the events we know without spelling them out, and explains Diana’s humanitarian work in detail because that’s not as commonly publicized in the worldwide media, or at least the American media, which is a significant audience.

The film’s Diana seems a perfect hybrid of Naomi Watts and the real Diana. Not too costume-y, not too uncanny. She’s got the poise and the voice down. Andrews is a great leading man. He gets to be charming, romantic, complicated and vulnerable.

It just seems like the paparazzi isn’t a strong enough narrative presence for this story to work. That sounds so horrible to say when they were responsible for her actual death. What could be more of a threat? But day-to-day in their relationship, it’s just a presence. It surely would be invasive and unbearable but it doesn’t exactly make a love triangle. The film did make me genuinely sorry for Diana and Hasnat that they couldn’t be together. That’s something. It did inform me further even though I’ve lived through these events and all the omnipresent coverage. I just don’t have any more takeaway than this was a classy portrayal of those events.

And I’m sure no one wants me to keep bringing up Jobs, but that biopic left out a whole lot of detail yet it conveyed the nature of the innovation for which its subject was famous. Diana captures the humanity of someone we may only know as a spectacle, I suppose. That’s level one storytelling though. I guess I’m looking for some next level biography. At least it’s better than those movies where musicians get really famous, then take drugs and lose it all but come back in the end. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.