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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge