Naomi Watts Gives a Worthy Performance in ‘Diana’

[4 March 2014]

By Jose Solis

“Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”
—from Earl Spencer’s funeral oration for his sister Princess Diana.

The problem with Diana is that it was always meant to be a doomed picture. From its casting, to the secrecy that surrounded its plot, all the way to its strange commercial release (trailers were saved until the very last minute and even then, they focused mostly on the glitz than the character) and the destructive vitriol it evoked from journalists, bloggers and audiences alike (from both sides of the pond), it was one of those movies that quite simply shouldn’t have been made. The biographical drama, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (who in 2004 directed the gripping Downfall depicting the last ten days of Adolf Hitler’s regime) was just made too soon, during a moment in time when the world just wasn’t ready to see such a beloved icon “humanized” onscreen.

Whenever biopics are made, they tend to be about people who have either been deceased for many, many years, or who are still alive but tend to be more divisive in the public eye (Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher come to mind). Therefore when a film is made about someone universally beloved, the stakes become higher because there is simply no way of pleasing everybody (or anybody as it turned out to be in this case).

Diana opens in Paris, on the night of Princess Diana’s tragic death. But it opens not with the accident itself, but with Diana (Naomi Watts) pacing around in her room, anxiously expecting a phone call that never comes, and which might also have prevented her from leaving with her beau, Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar).

The film then goes back in time to elaborate on who Diana wanted to hear so with such anxiety—already setting up for itself a goal that will be almost impossible to fulfill—and we learn it was Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), a heart surgeon with whom she had a torrid affair following her divorce from Prince Charles. From its opening scene in which we see the Princess’ frozen gaze staring back at us (Is it accusatory? Meant to make us cry for justice?) to the reverential way in which she is presented to us throughout the film (she engages in intercourse but her body is never exposed) it seems as if Diana’s crush on its subject, prevented it from leaving the realm of fantasy to become completely human.

More troubling than this is perhaps the notion that maybe audiences just weren’t ready to see Lady Di as a “human”. The film features scenes where we see her listen to music (she unwraps CDs with utter joy), attempts cooking, gossips with her friend (the wonderful Juliet Stevenson), discusses her favorite soap operas (“of course I love telly” she exclaims) and with each passing minute it becomes obvious that we did not want to see the Princess of Wales in sweatpants, writing in her diary as if she’s Bridget Jones.

This, however, has more to do with the unimaginative screenplay (by Stephen Jeffreys) than with the performance at its center, for if there is one thing in Diana worth our time, it is watching the ever more extraordinary Watts.

The Australian actress (her nationality itself being an issue for those overprotective of the Princess’ legacy) is given some truly horrid lines (“can they truly break?” she asks her cardiologist boyfriend about his specialty) and at one point she even has to wear a brown wig as she goes out incognito to meet her lover, but what Watts does is that she goes beyond it. She sees these often ridiculous affectations and turns them into a playful star turn. In scenes where we’re supposed to admire her domesticity and see her as an “everywoman”, Watts chooses to play them as if Diana was a young girl playing house, all on her own as an adult for the very first time (after all she was just twenty years old when she married the Prince of Wales).

The actress, who must have been aware of the deep pit she was throwing herself into, approaches Diana with enough respect not to be overpowered and deliver a camp performance, but with a natural ease that brings out our empathy. As a whole, the film feels uneven, but it’s not the “devil’s work” some have suggested it is. If anything, like the best films about unhappy royals (think Roman Holiday), it suggests that while we might never understand the world ‘the royals’ inhabit, we are just as noble when we treat them without snark. Despite, at our worst, never truly recognizing their humanity, seeing them with kindness makes them our equals.

Diana is presented in a wonderful high definition transfer that rightfully highlights the film’s effectively beautiful cinematography. Bonus features include interviews with the cast and crew, as well as short making-of featurettes, the most fun of which is dedicated to the film’s costume design, also highlighted in a lovely booklet which provides us with trivia about how the costume designers recreated some of Diana’s most iconic looks.

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