I think you have to be British — or at least a member of the Commonwealth — to get your knickers in a twist over Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana. I have never seen the level of vitriol unleashed on such a relatively innocuous biopic before — and it’s almost entirely from Brit and Australian critics. While I understand their sense of protectiveness over Princess Diana, I simply cannot fathom why so much scorn has been heaped on this slender — and, if anything, overly respectful — film about the last two years of her life and her love affair with Pakistani heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan. (The criticism that it doesn’t present Diana from the cradle to the grave is particularly strange, since it never pretends to.) It may not be anything all that special, but it’s harmless, well-made and entertaining on its own terms.
The film stars Naomi Watts (perfectly credible) as Diana and Naveen Andrews (The Brave One) as Dr. Khan. Its focuses almost entirely on their relationship and the problems of an almost impossibly famous person entering into a relationship with a very private man. At bottom, it’s a star-crossed romance — the sort of thing that would work just as well about imaginary characters in some Ruritanian kingdom. That it’s about real people is both a plus and a minus. That we know Diana (in a sense) leaves the film free to merely sketch her in. The downside comes from the fact that this sketch isn’t going to fit everyone’s image of her, and it leaves the characterization slightly unformed. Diana just is, and the film expects us to fill in the blanks, which, of course, most of us can do.
In a lot of respects, Diana plays like a romantic comedy — albeit one with an inevitably tragic conclusion. The scenes where Diana dons a brunette wig (making her look distractingly like Toni Collette) so she and Hasnat can go out in public is pure rom-com stuff, but it also works surprisingly well, thanks in large part to Watts and Andrews. There’s a big problem with the lighter aspects of the film, however: Director Hirschbiegel doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with them. He seems much more at home with the film’s artistic image compositions and its complex tracking shots (some of which are stunning). His depiction of the immediate impact of news of Diana’s death — lights suddenly snapping on in the windows of a darkened street — is, in fact, brilliant. But the upbeat moments simply don’t seem to engage his interest that much. The blessing is that the leads take up the slack.
The emotional components of the film ring true — it really is a sad story, and that comes through. But I’m not sure how to feel about the film’s depiction of Diana using the paparazzi to make sure that Hasnat is all too aware of her being on Dodi Fayed’s (Cas Anvar, Source Code) yacht. I have no idea if this is true, and the minimized rendition of her relationship with Fayed feels a little off. (This is the one area where I can understand the British press finding the film “tasteless.”) It doesn’t ruin the picture by any means, but it doesn’t play very well. Overall, however, I liked Diana. “Royalty watchers” (you know who you are) will probably like it even more. No, it’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one — and it’s certainly not the disaster the UK reviewers have painted it as. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sensuality and smoking.