Diana: compelling our hands to our faces

Dr_Hasnat_Khan__Diana_biopic_is__completely_wrong_NAOMI WATTS’ claim that Princess Diana gave her tacit approval for the actress’ portrayal of her is, somehow, the least ridiculous element of Diana. First things first, the film is awful. No amount of fancy camera work or French mix-tapes can mask the unmistakable stench of fetid verbal excrement that is the script. Perhaps Watts and Naveen Andrews (Dr. Hasnat Khan) did an amazing job of portraying the star-crossed lovers, but it really is hard to tell when the script is so hilariously bad. Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of the darkly brilliant Downfall, fails in the way only an achingly earnest film-maker can. The result is a hilarious turd: revolting yet somehow fascinating, with scenes that are consistently surprising in their levels of profound absurdity and a script endlessly quotable in all its rancid glory.

With the latest Royal Wedding and the birth of Prince George Somethingorother tugging at the nation’s patriotic heartstrings, a lavish and intrusive biopic concerning a secret love affair of one of the most iconic Royals was inevitable. Everyone likes a good love story. We repeat: everyone likes a good love story. Hirschbiegel embarrassingly attempts to make Diana the kind of film that will stay in cinema-goers hearts and cause them to well up every time they hear ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (which was not present, but might as well have been).

One of the most tragic aspects of the film is that it tries so hard but fails so miserably. It could have been used as a vehicle to further the political causes that Diana was passionate about; instead, her charity work, upbringing and relationship with the Royals are all footnoted in favour of an insipid love story based on cringe-worthy pillow talk and football banter. Diana, as the film portrays her, is dumbed-down in favour of placing more emphasis on her as a wretched, romantic heroine; in Panorama interviews that inspired parts of the film the late princess discusses her humanitarian work in detail – a much more intelligent and engaging character than the one we get in the film. All we  are left with are perpetual repetitions of “I want to help people”. There is no comment made on Diana’s character beyond saintly exoneration; the result is an underdeveloped caricature.

This is a biopic with none of the bio. Porn or no porn, at least Caligula gave its audience some basic vestige of understanding for what made the emperor tick. We are given no such privilege in Diana: Watts’ earnest head tilts, immaculate perm and impressively-copied mannerisms are smothered by sentimental drivel, an otherwise respectable performance rendered meaningless by the fatuous, tabloid-parroting nonsense of the script.

And oh, the script. It’s laugh-out-loud funny to the point where we had to clamp our hands over our mouths to avoid offending the more elderly members of the audience (one of whom looked comatose). Stephen Jeffreys, the man responsible, attempts to make the film an epic, transcendental love story between two earthbound celestial lovers by having them spout romantic philosophical quotes like verbal diarrhoea while dancing along the grey English coast, listening to French sex music. Then there’s the jazz metaphor – “Improvise, Diana” – the implication that much of the princess’ public persona was based on Khan’s love of jazz. Jeffreys forgets one thing – nobody says or does this crap. They sound like aliens programmed to speak drivelsome, saccharine bulls**t.

“You don’t perform the operation,” Khan says to Diana, “The operation performs you.” “Can a heart be broken?” Diana inquires. The most impressive part of the film is the actors’ ability to say this twaddle with straight faces. Patrick, Diana’s personal secretary, reflects what we suspect to be the instinct of many movie-goers by walking out halfway through and never coming back.

While such painful exchanges succeed only in alienating the audience, there is a clear attempt within the film to portray Diana as the “people’s princess”. Cue Princess Diaries-style “Woah! She’s not your usual princess!” shots: Diana in tracksuit bottoms cooking (no doubt premium) baked beans; Diana trawling through jazz cassettes to impress her crush; Diana donning a wig to dodge the press – the list goes ever on. These clichéd attempts to make Diana a more relatable Royal are severely undermined by her inhuman dialogue.

But Diana isn’t all terrible. Our personal highlight was when Diana, grief-stricken at her new singledom and playing appropriate melancholy piano music, faceplanted the book of Bach sheet music. We also liked the bit where they played ‘West End Girls’ – all too briefly. Funnily enough, the scenes that lacked any dialogue showcased Diana at its best; you suddenly remember it was Hirschbiegel who orchestrated the unapproachable and animalistic Hitler of Downfall. There’s an eerie sense of impending doom in these wordless moments, punctured by baleful string stabs and a caged-looking Diana, bunkered away in Kensington Palace… but then they start speaking again and it all goes to pot.

Diana has been described in press releases as “compelling”; the only thing it compelled was our hands to our faces. Every time the screen faded to black you hoped it would be the end, only to have your ears drilled by more excruciating dialogue as mascara dripped down Watts’ face. The ending, far from achieving the sense of poignant tragedy it so desperately desires, only succeeds as a form of clemency.

As a companion piece to the nauseating TV film William & Kate, Diana succeeds. If it’s intended as a tribute to the late princess, we imagine it’s the cinematic equivalent of renovating a house by p***ing all over the walls: well-meaning, but woefully misguided. Speaking of woefully misguided, Paul Burrell makes an appearance. Surprisingly, he was not played by the man himself, nor was he the slimiest aspect of the film.We were too young to remember Diana as a public figure when she died, and this biopic did little to enlighten us of the woman behind the continuing Daily Mail headlines. An absolute mess.