The public obsession with “the most famous woman of the world,” the photogenic and glamorous Princess Diana Spencer was never more obvious than at her funeral in 1997. Eulogies and condolences poured in. The gates of Buckingham palace became a sea of flowers as tribute to her memory. One such tribute was by heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, with whom Diana had become romantically attached. A detailed depiction of this affair in the closing chapter in the life of the troubled Diana is the subject of this film by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the talented director of Downfall (yes, that is the one for which Hitler’s rage animated endless YouTube parodies)
The life of a Princess just isn’t what it’s made out to be, Hirschbiegel’s film seems to imply. The Prince is off chasing after another skirt (the cad!), the meddling in-laws are restricting her visits with her sons, and the press is murderously nosy.
Yes, there are perks. “I’m a princess. I always get my way,” Diana, played by Naomi Watts, intones playfully to her lover, Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). On their first date, she reminds Khan, who prefers a Burger King meal over that made by her: “This is a palace. We never run out of wine.” Such are the trappings of privilege, yet despite a private acupuncturist, plentiful domestic help, and trips on the Concord, Diana seems to chafe in her proverbial gilded cage. The cinematography of this film frequently contrasts the different worlds of the patrician and the plebian, the muted lighting and elegant luxury of the palace contrasting with the harsh lights of the fast food restaurants and operating table that are the surgeon’s haunts. Diana is shown wielding her power and her connections with dexterity. There is even a tantalizing suggestion that she might have been more friendly with reporters than we have been led to believe.
So much of Princess Diana’s life has already become public memory, and the film struggles with showing another side to her much photographed life. The romance is tepid, (possibly in deference to the Royal family?) and both in filmic terms as well as historical fact, it doesn’t work. In the early clandestine dates, a nervous and skittish Diana and the dazzled heart surgeon exchange superficial lines that would be more appropriate to a teenage romance story. The scenes of their blossoming love seem to struggle with lack of chemistry. There seems a notable absence of tension or suspense as they continue to meet, no slow simmer where she grapples with her feelings. There is a matter-of-factness in Watts’s acting that makes it difficult to identify with Diana’s character. Diana is simultaneously challenging the twin monolithic institutions of monarchy and of marriage, but she does so with a dreary lack of spunk. If Stephen Frear’s film The Queen showed Helen Mirren as the dutiful and stolid monarch, Diana could have done so much more to animate the impetuousness and rebelliousness of the “Princess of Hearts.”
The camera follows the Princess around in her somewhat claustrophobic world. Her humanitarian efforts, especially for mine-field victims are highlighted. We also see un-royal behavior, as Diana stalks a miffed Hasnat and hollers up at his window. Watching this human, vulnerable side to her is strangely unsettling. Perhaps we have higher standards for royalty, even though the British royal family hardly inspires faith in the institution of monarchy. As public opinion polls show a reduced appetite for state support for the British royal family, denouncing the royals has frequently become a press-led bloodsport and cottage industry. In decades past, a more deferential press would have thought it unseemly to report on the private excesses of the aristocracy. Attitudes have changed. The Queen declared 1992 “anno horribilis,” a reference to the much publicized trials and tribulations caused by misbehaving Royals, and accounts of their avidly followed marital troubles and infidelities.
Perhaps my ambivalence to this film was borne by the circumstance of Diana’s death, punctuated by maudlin curiosity and a jostling for a spectator seat to the drama of her life. It can be argued that the Diana we think we know was a creation of the media, which was responsible both for her outsized celebrity as well as her premature demise. In the film, invasive bounty hunters working for sensationalist tabloid newspapers are everywhere. The worst of the encounters with the press leave her curled in a fetal position, her eyes unseeing.
Perhaps our discomfort, even sixteen years after Diana’s death, is with the act of spectatorship itself. Perhaps it is fitting for us to lower our voyeuristic eyes, and finally give this troubled woman the dignity that she was not afforded during the life that was lived, always, always under the glare of the camera and its intrusive gaze.
Geetika Pathania Jain lives in the bay area. In 1997, she was looking for coverage of Mother Teresa’s death, but Princess Di eclipsed all other news.