Are the micro-biopics that don’t even bother to provide overviews of their famed subjects’ entire lives, but instead lean on the spectacle of celebrity impersonation, the new camp? If last year’s Hitchcock and Hyde Park on Hudson formed a perfect dumb-and-dumber double feature of strained accents, stunt casting, Halloween Warehouse couture, unconvincing approximations of normal human behavior, and in-jokey historical signposts, then Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana seems hell-bent on running the whole bad-movie decathlon backward…in heels.
Based on Kate Snell’s contested account of Princess Diana’s dalliances with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan and billionaire heir Dodi Fayed, the film burlesques the turbulent final years of Diana’s life into a marathon series of Eastenders crises as envisioned by the Kuchar brothers’ brittle great-grandmother. If only the lumpen mess were even half as much fun as some of the most blistering reviews from out of the United Kingdom made it sound, it might have actually earned that up-is-down backhanded praise. Alas, Diana isn’t fun at all, of either the sincere or ironic variety. It’s a slog that purports to humanize a woman upon which the entire world ascribed their own impressions. But Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys end up as hypnotized by their subject as any Brit tabloid, frequently staging Di’s appearances in public as a never-ending punchline of instant recognition from amassed bystanders. That’s when the filmmakers aren’t ardently emphasizing her humanitarian work, which is presented as both a very sincere extension of her sainthood and also a convenient means of damage control as the woman who would be queen reeled amid the scandal of her divorce from Prince Charles.
As Diana, Naomi Watts seems as unaware of how to bring to life her “character” (because it seems too tasteless to refer to this film’s version as anything other than that) as her character seems perplexed by how a microwave oven works. Her Diana is an over-privileged victim; a meek, lonely woman who billions revere; a cultural dilettante who isn’t sure if burgers can be “made”; a selfless cuckold who orchestrates a paparazzi blitz to capture her new romantic dalliance; a strutting tear duct disguised beneath a bad wig right out of a Brian De Palma film. She’s also, apparently, clairvoyant, since on the night she and Fayed are to take their fateful trip through the Pont de l’Alma, she stops repeatedly in her tracks and seems about to turn back to her hotel room.
Right down to the contrast between the two men she volleys between (one who puts saving lives above his own happiness, one who has a gold-trimmed yacht), Diana, Princess of Wails isn’t just a mass of contradictions; she’s a convergence of storm fronts threatening to blow up into an F5 shopping spree, which is fitting for a film that demonstrates no interest in delving beneath the surface of its subject. Many of the recent string of micro-biopics have hypocritically given audiences the spectacle of larger-than-life figures brought down to earth and humanized, a combination of star worship and solipsism (“They’re just like us!”). Diana, possibly the new nadir, isn’t even so nuanced as a selfie.