There’s a myopia to “Diana,” the new film about the divorce and last great romance of Princess Diana’s life, that fits its subject like one of Diana’s signature, custom-tailored gowns.
Isolated, focused on her image, her few contacts with the outside world and her work, when this lonely and lovelorn woman (Naomi Watts) zeroes in on something or someone, it seems obsessive, smothering and all-consuming.
Dismiss it as worthy of a Lifetime Original Movie if you want, but this film from the director of the Fuhrer bunker drama “Downfall” gives us insights into this poor little royal plaything that Americans, at least, will find eye-opening.
Based on “Diana, Her Last Love,” by Kate Snell, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film depicts a manipulator practicing her most withering lines about her failed marriage to Prince Charles in front of a vanity mirror.
“There were three of us in this marriage,” she famously told her TV interrogator. “So it was a bit crowded.”
She milks her victimhood, frets over how seldom she gets to see her princely sons and manages to seem both vulnerable and cunning at the same time. “I’m very good with the press.”
A trusted aide (Charles Edwards) feels she’s maneuvering behind his back and offers to resign, and her cool reaction stuns him.
“Well, Patrick, you’ve been a rock.”
“What will you do?”
“Get a new rock.”
Outcast from the royal family and not close to her own, she only takes counsel from a trusted confidante (Juliet Stevenson) and Oonagh Toffolo, her acupuncturist/confessor (Geraldine James).
But she has a gift for empathy, and it’s much more than just her image. Dashing into a hospital to visit Oonagh’s ailing husband, she ignores the nurses who swoon in her presence and the doctors who ogle her. But that empathy leads her to cool, handsome and charming heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan.
Their love affair, the tricks each used to see the other, the strains of celebrity and of being “the most famous woman in the world” in love with a Pakistani Muslim, sucks up the bulk of “Diana.” The film shows us a nocturnal creature in hot pursuit of the one man underwhelmed by her celebrity until he is overwhelmed by the press, the culture clash and the demands of a woman who can have whatever she wants.
Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys (“The Libertine”) frame this quiet, doomed love story within that last walk out of a Paris hotel, that last car ride with playboy Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar). That much we know. What the movie wants us to remember is the misery of being stalked by a fanatical gossip press (which Diana manipulates from time to time), the gutsy way she used her fame to do good, pushing for an international ban on land mines, and her instinctual, almost superhuman ability to respond to people in pain.
Watts masters Diana’s look – the way she carried her head and used those wide, coyly expressive eyes – but is only passable at impersonating the voice. It’s a studied performance that doesn’t give away the wheels turning as Diana plays the angles to try to get what she wants out of the royal family, the press, her doctor-lover and her life.
It is too superficial and flattering to pass muster with the British press, which had both an ownership stake and a hate-love affair with her. But “Diana” vividly captures the shrinking world she lived in of public appearances, midnight escapes in her butler’s car, donning a long black wig to make this deal-with-the-devil life she bought into work, even as she desperately wanted to remain “Princess of Our Hearts.”
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