Naomi Watts had reservations about playing the most famous woman in the world, as well one might – there cannot be an icon we know better in our collective memory, thanks to the media frenzy which dominated her almost two decades as “the most photographed woman in the world”. But in the end, it’s not the dedication of Watts’ performance (the perpetually tilted head, the blue, kohl-lined doe eyes) that lets this film down as much as its choice of narrative subject matter. Though the movie opens on That Fateful Night in 1997, Diana takes us back through the real and imagined moments of the Princess’s final two years, as she falls in love with Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan.
Watts gives the impersonation her best shot, and one’s ability to suspend disbelief will depend on the viewer. It is helpful that the opening shots follow Diana’s blonde coiffure from behind, attempting to acclimatise us before introducing us to the wrong face. But despite the faithful reproduction of key scenes we are overly familiar with (the walk through the land mines; That BBC Interview about the “overcrowded marriage”), I could never shake that I was watching Watts instead of Windsor.
Inexplicably, the film was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel of Downfall and Das Experiment fame – both excellent dramas (the former notably about another icon of our times) that tackled difficult subjects with considerable grit. By comparison, Diana plays on the loneliness amidst lavish surrounds which characterised the Princess’s life, but is completely devoid of charm or delicacy – Watts’ reaction when she first claps eyes on Khan (played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews) is as unsubtle as a rejected audition tape. Diana’s ensuing seduction of the surgeon feels cringy (her inability to cook pasta induces naive giggling and uncomfortable jokes), but one is constantly nagged by the thought that, as excruciating as these posh people’s courtship is, it might just be true.
Neither a warts ‘n’ all exposé nor a puff-piece, the presumed veracity presents a dual problem: alongside moments we know to be based on fact, there are others surely imagined, but none of it paints Diana in a particularly good light. Is the filmmaker to be applauded for showing her flaws? Or is it ultimately just a rather sad tale about an unlikeable creature?
For those who devoured her every move when alive and mourned her tragic death, Diana may be a worthwhile watch regardless, possibly even delivering a fresh insight into her private world.
But there is something disappointingly watery about the tone and the telling – stuck, as it is, between dramatisation and fan-fiction – and in the end Diana delivers neither the documentary titbits nor the solid romantic drama one might hope for, tantamount simply to watching an issue of Hello magazine.