Diana: A laughing stock is not the same thing as a comedy

Where Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2004 film "Downfall" showed us the complexities of its central character, "Diana" fails to extend the same generosity to the Princess of Wales.

Diana (12A)
dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film, Downfall, about the last days of Hitler, attracted unsolicited notoriety on YouTube, where one particular scene was re-subtitled many times over so that the Führer might now be seen raging in his bunker about the relegation of Sheffield United or a design flaw in the latest iPod. But even the most resourceful online mischief-makers working around the clock would be hard-pressed to render Hirschbiegel’s latest biographical film any funnier than it already is. A laughing stock, however, is not the same thing as a comedy. Downfall at least showed Hitler to be a complex human being. In Diana, the same courtesy has not been extended to the late princess of Wales.

An air of fatalism can’t help but pervade any story in which the end is already known to the audience, so one of the first decisions that the makers of any biopic must take is whether or not to exploit the benefit of hindsight. Hirschbiegel and his screenwriter, Stephen Jeffreys, make clear their approach from the opening scene, in which Diana (Naomi Watts) casts a long, meaningful glance at the camera as it recedes from her. This is in Paris in August 1997 and her clairvoyance is contagious: no one in the film can stop him or herself from investing the simplest line or look with foreboding. Diana’s acupuncturist, Oonagh (Geraldine James), proclaims: “Your life is ahead of you!” Then she asks of the Parisian jaunt, “Is it right for you to be going on this trip?” There is talk of forks in the road, choices to be made, futures to look forward to. The movie has balls but only crystal ones.

When they aren’t fatalistic, the innuendoes are sexual. The portrayal of Diana’s two-year relationship with Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), which makes up the bulk of the film, is only one Swanee whistle short of turning into Carry On Princess. Their acquaintance begins when Oonagh’s husband is rushed to the hospital where Hasnat is a heart surgeon. Still, one should never let a class-four haemorrhage get in the way of a love affair.

Their eyes meet across an empty triage room but only in the way that an express train “meets” a lorry parked in its path. At least acting students now have a handy three-second “How not to” guide in the form of the absurdly freighted look that passes between the actors. Perhaps they both simply took one sniff of the script and deduced correctly that subtlety would be wasted here.

Jeffreys seems to believe that the quickest way to make the upper classes seem normal is to show that they can use a double entendre as well as a fish knife. Here’s Hasnat to Diana in a lift: “Are you going down?” Diana to Hasnat: “At the palace, we stay open very late.” Hasnat on Diana’s cooking: “Pretty hot stuff, eh?” Diana marvelling at an Angolan landmine: “My, that’s a big one!” The shocking thing is that I made up only one of those lines.

It’s a poor show when a biopic can offer little to recommend its subject beyond her fame. As the film has it, Diana’s greatest attribute was not altruism or rebelliousness but an ability to say things that foreshadowed her death, or would later sound ironic in the light of it. I don’t think that the filmmakers set out to ridicule Diana but I can’t have been the only person in the cinema who experienced an eerie chill when she delivered the line: “You’re laughing at me!”

Watts does what she can with that coquettishly cocked head and sly smirk. The knowing look is a hard one to pull off, though, when you’ve just called yourself an “omnibus” instead of “omniscient”. The act of appearing knowing requires at least a scintilla of knowledge in the first place and the film seems determined to prove that Diana knew only how to stare at length into her hidden shallows.

The woman it portrays is interested in the world around her only in so far as it pertains to her. Whether swotting up on landmines, or leafing through a medical textbook in preparation for a date with Hasnat, it’s all the same – it’s about how she can advertise herself. The only smart thing we see her do is head for the bottom of the swimming pool when she is being addressed by Paul Burrell (Douglas Hodge, infinitely more camp than he was in full drag onstage in La Cage aux Folles). Few among us would not have done the same.

Occasional shards of truth glint among the kitsch. The moment when Diana kisses the mirror to leave a lipstick imprint for Hasnat is very telling – a glimpse through the eyes of a woman who saw adoration wherever she went and was flummoxed if it failed to flow back to her.

There is also the faintest suggestion that Diana’s collusion with the paparazzi made her death a kind of assisted suicide. Yet the movie has about as much self-awareness as its subject. You would have to be far surer of your material than Hirschbiegel is to include Diana’s statement that “This is wall-to-wall 22-carat bollocks!” and not worry that you’ve smuggled a review of your film into the script.

Naomi Watts's Diana is drawn from the tabloid press. Photograph: Ecosse Films.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis