The problem is all there in the title – that singular “Diana.” For some reason, director Oliver Hirschbiegel, screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys, and team have created a film under the impression that there is some level of the definitive to be found within it, at least enough to give such an authoritatively blunt moniker to a biopic that disappoints at nearly every turn (the film was originally known as “Caught in Flight,” and it’s based on Kate Snell’s book “Diana: Her Last Love,” two equally as bad titles that at least have a bit of pep and aim to them not afforded to the thudding “Diana”). Focused on the final two years of the People’s Princess’ dramatic life, “Diana” attempts to illuminate the previously (somewhat) hidden romance between the emotionally needy Diana (Naomi Watts) and a conflicted and kindhearted surgeon (Naveen Andrews). The result is a film that grows worse with each passing minute, as the vibrant and complex Diana is reduced down to a daft, dumbstruck love addict, a biopic that tries desperately to humanize an already beloved and relatable human being and makes her look comically idiotic and empty in the process.
While Hirschbiegel’s film knowingly portrays the constant level of scrutiny and observation that Diana was placed under in the years following her separation from Prince Charles (pressing paparazzi and talky tabloids are ever-present and the camera is routinely trained uncomfortably close on strange details of her everyday life, like kicking off her shoes or lighting a candle), it does it without any finer understanding of what that actually meant to the woman under the lens, nor what the implications are in a larger context. “Diana” is a film that longs to be about understanding, but it’s simply about observation, making it nearly as bad and as destructive as a photographer hiding in the bushes, desperate for one good shot.
Centered on the ill-fated romance between Diana and Pakistani heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan, “Diana” lays the emotion on thick and quickly – Diana is lonely, Diana craves genuine ardor, Diana has never felt truly accepted. Listen, we get it, Diana needs love – we get that, man, do we get that – but delivering that message by way of terrible exposition and worse actions reduces the relatability of Diana and turns her into a caricature of an abandoned and destroyed woman. “Diana” removes complexity from its leading lady early and often, and it never fully recovers, even as Watts tries her damnedest to turn in a performance that quite consciously avoids parody or impersonation.
Diana and Hasnat’s romance is styled as some sort of dreamy, hazy “meant to be” type thing, with Diana’s face instantly taking on a goofy cast the moment she meets the good doctor, though the reason why she’s instantly infatuated with him is never clear. Watts and Andrews exhibit a friendly, fun chemistry, but the pair fails to spark in the romance department, and watching them inflict TV movie-styled affection on each other is nothing short of awkward. It doesn’t help matter that the two romance the other by way of such hammy lines as Hasnat cooing to an adoring Diana, “you don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you” when she requests him to explain his work to her. At one point, Diana literally asks the heart surgeon if a human heart can truly break.
Though the film clearly tries to make Diana feel relatable and understandable through her falling in love (perhaps for the first time), its portrayal cuts her down as a human being – she comes off as an obsessive, immature, and infantile whack job that is simply in love with love. Her actions as they relate to her latest doomed romance are straight out of high school – she buys books Hasnat owns (like “Gray’s Anatomy,” he is a doctor, you know), snaps up CDs in an attempt to understand his beloved jazz, shows up randomly at his workplace, spouts off weird comments about being excited by hospitals, and eventually even steals into his home to clean it for him (she, of course, leaves him a lipstick kiss on his mirror). Ultimately, the film argues that she only dated Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar) to make Hasnat jealous, going so far as to call up previously despised tabloids to tell them where the pair are vacationing on his yacht, simply so that Hasnat will be forced to see their affair on every paper around town.
“Diana” tries to humanize its leading lady, but it only embarrasses her (and us) in the process. Diana deserves so much more than this, and if her romance with Hasnat was everything it was rumored to be, their love story alone demands a more deft touch than this grasping, nuance-free outing.
Even one of the few bright spots in the film – a stirring score from Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes – is marred by the fact that it’s so good that it’s basically manipulative. The soaring, stunning notes frequently play over scenes of exacting boredom, making even the most wrong-headed sequence feel important and epic within the context of the film and Diana’s life. None of it is actually important, however, at least not as it applies to this film, a misdirected insult to memory and illumination.
SCORE: 4.2 / 10