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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What we can learn from Harry Potter’s “mad women”

We revist the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between.

Madness is a fluid thing. To be “crazy” has no fixed meaning, it changes to fit the definition required – whether that’s a quick fix to deflect blame for the powerful (think racism, terrorism or fascism damagingly dismissed as “mental illness”) or a cunning way to dismiss the powerless: She’s not telling the truth! She’s crazy! Madness may be utterly meaningless, but it has infinite power.

In the often unreal space of mental illness, the fantasy world of books, movies and television can intertwine with one’s lived experience. I hated reading until Harry Potter came to me as a traumatised ten-year-old. In between bouts of psychosis and extreme suicidal ideation I would read, and read, and read. They were big books too, so thick, no picture – but it was worth it. A whole world just for me! Now isn’t that magical?

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of this wonderful, wizarding world, I find myself returning to the “mad” women of Harry Potter, both good, bad and somewhere in between. Bellatrix Lestrange, Moaning Myrtle, Luna Lovegood, Professor Trelawney... Who are these characters beyond their exaggerated mannerisms and super cute style? What are they telling us about the cultural codes of madness and the construct of the “mad woman”?

Because despite being more distressed when I was sorted into Slytherin than when I was presented with a personality disorder, pop culture and medical realities cross over in interesting and unexpected ways. These culturally agreed upon outfits of “madness” are retold and remade over and over. Who can wear the costume of madness, and in what way, in the popular imagination?

Luna Lovegood

First, let’s go for one of for one of the “good guys”. “Looney Luna”, the dazed Hogwarts student as pale as a full moon, is portrayed in the films with a quietly mesmerising performance from Evanna Lynch. Bullied for her “horrid” dress sense and marked out for her “distinct dottiness”, Luna was one of my teen idols. Young, brilliant, equally skilled at making novelty hats, riding thestrals and saving the wizarding world, Luna is up there with the best of them!

An heiress to madness, as the child of Xenophilius Lovegood, notorious for his “lunatic rag”, The Quibbler (known for its coverage of elusive magical creatures and defiantly radical politics), Luna, in her ability to embrace the impossible, is often characterised as an ‘anti-Hermione’, she is more than a mere shadow of another girl.

After all, in inhabiting such a distinct world of her own creation, shaped both by the grief of losing her mother and her own personal vision, it could be easy to dismiss her as a mere manic pixie dream girl, especially when considering her ability to recognise and support Harry’s struggles when others could not, but Luna’s character is more robust than these misogynistic tropes. Not only does she save Harry’s reputation with an interview in the much-maligned Quibbler (another reminder not to judge the ‘loony’ on first glance), she serves as a dedicated member of Dumbledore’s Army, acting as an essential force in The Battle of the Department of Mysteries, The Battle of The Astronomy Tower and of course, the final Battle For Hogwarts. Yes, her eccentricities are dismissed as ‘loony’, but they belong to a heroic character in possession of creativity, wit, intellect – and, of course, unique style. (A necklace made of Butterbeer corks, anyone?)

Pale, pop cultural misfits are funny things. Winona Ryder, Audrey Tatou in Amelie, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Bush… sometimes outsiders are more insiders than you’d realise. Nonetheless, I will fangirl for Luna forever.

Professor Sybill Trelawney

Perhaps seen as another antagonist to Hermione’s bookish rationality, and an adult mirror for Luna’s own dream logic, Professor Sybill Trelawney is a shining star in a long line of magical “mad women”. Can’t you just imagine her and the Log Lady from Twin Peaks bonding over a pint of Pumpkin Juice? The links between madness and the mystic run deep, it is no coincidence that Sybill’s Grandmother takes the name of Cassandra. Who would believe a mad woman? But who but a mad woman can see the truth in a chaotic world? (Luna, too, is characterised as keen observer, after all.) The pop cultural mystic provokes so many questions in regards to the mythology of madness (an often unhelpful fetish for those of us who are actually struggling with our mental health) and broader questions of believing women when we are constantly dismissed as irrational, ridiculous or unreliable.

Though her exaggerated costume and “woolly” predictions could reduce her to a mere comic support act, Sybill has far more nuance than the (seemingly) ridiculous individual we are presented with in the start of the third book. Throughout the series, her character deepens and develops: we see a heartbreakingly vulnerable side to her in the fifth book, and though her gift for The Inner Eye may have been dismissed early on, her predictions eventually become essential in defeating Voldemort. Sybill even plays a fearless role in The Battle of Hogwarts, knocking out Death Eaters with her crystal balls. One of Harry Potter’s many lessons is not to dismiss unconventional women like Sybill too quickly. As a result, Sybill stands out as a beautiful branch on the tree of mystic weirdos. Who knows what miraculous things we might discover if we take the time to listen to her?

Moaning Myrtle

Existing as an exaggeration of teen girl melancholy, Moaning Myrtle is trapped in the school that bullied and eventually killed her. She’s pictured as forever crying in the girls’ bathroom on the first floor, unwanted and unmissed, with even her attempt at high school revenge washed out. There’s been so many perceptive conversations on the post-Kraus female gaze: wouldn’t it be interesting to locate Myrtle within them? She’s depicted as crushing on any boy that comes her way (be it Harry, Cedric or Malfoy), though the only thing she has to offer them is a toilet. Even her acne is “morose”.

This is a world where Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” plays on loop for eternity, effortlessly brought to (after)life by the brilliant Shirley Henderson, Queen of crying in public bathrooms. I’ll leave with my favourite quote that could one up even the most contentious Lana Del Rey soundbite:

Myrtle: “I wasn’t paying attention. Peeves upset me so much I came in here and tried to kill myself. Then, of course, I remembered that I’m — that I’m —”

Ron: “Already dead.”

Bellatrix LeStrange

And then we have Bellatrix: crazy in love with the Dark Lord himself, escaped inmate from a madness inducing institution, and a total Amy Winehouse prototype in her aesthetic of long black hair, low voice and heavily-lidded eyes.

It’s striking how frequently certain traits reoccur in pop culture when we envision the criminally insane, especially when it comes to women. Much like Harley Quinn of the Batman universe or Drusilla in Buffy, Bellatrix talks in the bizarre baby talk so popular with the fantasy mad woman. We are presented with a woman infantilised. This is also at play in her relationship with Voldemort: she’s totally dependent and utterly out of control.

If we can read Luna and Sybill as playful antagonists to such rational figures as Professor McGonagall and Hermione, Bellatrix serves as an active threat against Molly Weasley, the only true maternal figure Harry really has in the series. Sirius’ face may be the one burnt off the House of Black’s family tree, but it is Bellatrix who is the real destroyer of families: from the torture of Neville Longbottom’s parents, to the murder of her cousin (and Harry’s Godfather) Sirius Black and her own niece, Nymphadora Tonks. She even kills Dobby! In setting Bellatrix up as a total monster, it’s unsurprising that she became the only character to earn an all caps curse word in this child-friendly book. Because female evil has a particular kind of power, it provokes disgust in ways that others do not. Consider Umbridge, another reigning villainess with her hot pink get-ups and kitsch cat study, a sort of Nurse Ratched of Hogwarts. To use the building blocks of femininity to make a monster harbours true horror, so it is the female villains, both mad and bad, that stand out most sharply when it comes to Harry’s nemeses.

In the exaggerated fantasy world of Harry Potter this cast of mad women may seem like simplistic set characters of quirky creatives, cry-babies, unrealizable narrators and outright she-Devils. However, if we look closer at these ghostly voyeurs, escaped prisoners and outright eccentrics we can position these characters within a longer cultural history of ‘insane’ and outrageous women. Madness is often presented as a sort of magic and it is these mad women, existing in the already improbable space of witches and wizards, that push even further against our received ideas of rationality, respectability, even human goodness. Pottermore may have sorted me into Slytherin, but it is the Hogwarts House of Mad Women whose robes I choose to wear.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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