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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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