Is it possible to make a movie both histrionic and dull? “Diana” manages the feat. The film, based on a book by Kate Snell, looks at the romance between a heart surgeon and the Princess of Wales, who comes across here as a lovesick, clingy stalker (by her own admission) during the two years leading up to her death.
Naomi Watts plays the title character, and she works hard to mimic Diana’s head tilt, sidelong glances and inflection, but her efforts seem wasted given the soap opera dialogue and frivolous plot. When she meets surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), it’s love at first sight — for her, at least. She starts learning about medicine and jazz, two of his passions, while he maintains an aloof demeanor. When he does come around, the romance turns out to have neither heat nor heart as Watts and Andrews generate virtually no chemistry.
Of course, we know the match turned out to be star-crossed. When Diana died in a 1997 car crash, she was with Dodi Fayed, her boyfriend at the time. What the movie doesn’t explain is why we should care about the fate of the movie’s central romance.
When Diana died tragically and too young, so much of the world grieved. But the woman whose death spurred a mountain of flowers outside Kensington Palace is trivialized here. Even her humanitarian efforts seem motivated by her romance, and she is shown with her sons only once from afar. This Diana is the protagonist in a Lifetime movie, fighting for an unsound relationship that can never work — even resorting to screaming his name outside of his apartment in the middle of the night — because of her paramour’s aversion to fame and his family’s disapproval.
There are traces of a more compelling story in “Diana.” The film manages to capture the isolation of being surrounded by people who wanted nothing more than her picture and details of her personal life for the next day’s front page. At one point Diana is shown inside the empty Royal Opera House, talking on the phone to her son, Wills, about how she’s having a grand time. It’s not exactly subtle, though it effectively conveys a point. But director Oliver Hirschbiegel seems just as content examining a more superficial story.
To justify the film’s focus, the movie’s final moments intimate that, had things worked out between Diana and Hasnat, her tragic end might have been avoided. There are voice mails that go unreturned and even a moment when Hasnat might have made some kind of history-altering gesture. This theory glosses over the fact that Diana and Fayed’s chauffeur was driving both recklessly and under the influence while trying to flee the paparazzi on Aug. 31, 1997.
In these moments, the movie generates more skepticism than compassion. “Diana” isn’t just an egregious case of rewriting history, but one of oversimplifying it.
(112 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations and smoking.