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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage