By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist October 31, 2013 at 9:02AM
From the use of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (twice) to choice morsels of quotes such as, "Wherever you are, death will find you, even if you hide yourselves in firmly constructed towers" (from the Koran), the specter of death haunts "Diana." While that's not a surprise, given that the story tracks her life in the two years leading up (and including) her passing, it's just one of many elements the script by Stephen Jeffreys ("The Libertine") isn't quite sure how to handle. Set against a chronicle of Princess Diana's last and most meaningful relationship with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, it's a fine balance between tragedy and ghoulishness, and sadly, the film never finds it. Graceless, clumsy and uncertain, "Diana" is the result of what happens in trying to honor the late Princess by engaging in the very tabloid speculation that marred her life.
In the slight defense of the film, whether or not it was director Oliver Hirschbiegel, Naomi Watts and Naveen Andrews, or another crop of players, someone was going to make this kind of movie eventually. It's just mostly shocking that for all the fascinating background that the relationship between Diana and Hasnat played against, skirting racial and religious politics and so much more, that the approach here is to treat their brief but intense dalliance strictly on the terms of their feelings for each other. And it's a crucial mistake because without the context and texture of the time, the seams and flaws of Jeffreys' script are exposed for just how truly weak it is, and not even the best efforts of everyone involved can save it.
When a movie is as rhythm-less and shoddily assembled as "Diana," it's difficult to describe just how unaware the entire endeavor is of how closely to the edge of camp it rides (and it sometimes spills over). This is a picture where, in complete straight-faced earnestness, Hasnat explains to Diana that life is like jazz music, you just have to learn to improvise. Yes, really. And it doesn't end there. This is then followed by not one, but two separate scenes of people listening to jazz and like, understanding it, man. And then there's the absolutely bile rising sequence, during one of Diana and Hasnat's initial encounters, where they trade some of the worst sexual double entendres we've heard in a lifetime, all in the midst of a discussion about heart surgery. "How do you keep going?" Diana purrs learning that sometimes surgeries can last up to nine hours. Hasnat's wise but also cool and slick response? "You don't perform the operation, the operation performs you." And this is just but a small sampling of the torpid dialogue these actors are given. (I won't even get into the poetic musings on how "love is a fragrance" in a garden of...yeah, seriously...)
But the biggest crime of all is that the movie makes both Diana and Hasnat thoroughly unlikable to the point where you wonder why they even stuck around with each as long as they did. Diana in particular comes off as deeply unsophisticated, and so eager to please Hasnat that the first day after she meets him, she buys a copy of the medical text "Gray's Anatomy." Later, in a wacky scheme ripped out of a sitcom, when she invites Hasnat over for dinner, she tries to make pasta for the first time, but she can't cook, and it's terrible! LOLZ right?! And so of course, the heart surgeon orders in greasy burgers instead! The irony! This is a movie where Diana has a mixtape creatively titled FRENCH MIX, and what song is on it? "Ne Me Quitte Pas" of course, because everything between the princess and the doctor is going to be okay, right? But mostly, one is stupefied that, at least as portrayed in the movie, Diana has little inkling of what kind of challenge her fame has on a potential union with Hasnat. And her constant demands coupled with her own lack of personality (oh wait, she does admit to watching "EastEnders," just like regular people) and individuality makes it unclear what Hansat sees in her besides the physical.
And vice versa, really. Hasnat is no saint either, and positioned as the more pragmatic of the pair, he's acutely aware that their fling really has no realistic longevity. So, why does he stick around? Well, he does love her apparently, but he's also prone to exploding every time the merest hint of her paparazzi life dares to make him uncomfortable. In addition, Hasnat is seen as the strategical of the two, so even Diana's accomplishments, such as raising awareness for the humanitarian crisis around land mines, are robbed of her agency, as they get inevitably tied back in some fashion to the influence of her doctor friend. And then as a capper, Diana's final fling before her death with Dodi Fayed is mostly presented as one long con in a bid to make Hasnat jealous and get him to call her after she broke up with him. I had to double check that I wasn't watching a show on CW.
And unfortunately, neither Watts or Andrews help matters. Granted they're given little to work with, but they don't even attempt to go beyond whatever is on the page, good or bad. In what must be the worst, most unengaged performance from Watts I've ever seen, "Diana" seems like nothing less than a technical exercise, to make sure she can still cry on cue, hit marks and know where to look best for the camera. Her well of feeling for the character seems about as superficial as the many wigs she wears. Meanwhile, Andrews seems completely adrift, in a role that sees him go from wise sage (he has no small number of "profound" aphorisms which awe Diana) to giddy schoolboy in love to professional doctor out of his element with little nuance. And combined, the chemistry of Watts and Andrews is simply poisonous. Even when caught in an embrace, it feels like the pair are standing on opposite ends of the room.
Cobbled together into a series of episodic slices of events, and failing to grasp the world Diana inhabited in anything resembling depth, there are some very small moments when Hirschbiegel suggests a different, moodier and better film. And unsurprisingly, they usually involve pulling attention away from the two lead actors. Shots, such as the windows slowly lighting up down a London street as phones start ringing in households in the early morning hours as Diana's death makes the news or a bird's eye view of a crush of people surrounding Diana when she ventures into the public, represent a more atmospheric, observant take on the material, not unlike something in the mien of Gus Van Sant. And man, we would've loved to see what someone like him could've done with this subject.
But that's not what we got. Instead, "Diana" tries to get inside her last relationship, but in doing so strips away what made it sensational to the outside world. And what's left is a thoroughly dull, conventional tale of two people who can't find a compromise on their individual priorities to be together. And while Diana's death is tragic, her relationship with Hasnat at least as presented in the film, is not; they made each other miserable, and were both at best selfish and naive. We're sure that wasn't the intention of the filmmakers, but as it stands, Diana deserved both better in life and in death. [D-]