The campy guilty pleasure suggested by the trailer to “Diana” proves a marketing mirage thanks to “Downfall” director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s sensitive direction of an overly earnest drama. While mostly swerving past the pitfall of tastelessness, this sincerely intended account of the last two years of Princess Diana’s life risks an even more perilous roadblock: dullness. Still, the tony credentials, including lead thesp Naomi Watts’s two Oscar nods, provide a handy alibi for upscale audiences eager to have their fill of royal rumpus, but anxious that “Diana” might merely be trash TV on a bigger budget.
Hirschbiegel signals his bravura intentions from the get-go, with an artful, fluid tracking shot following Diana, boyfriend Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar) and attendants down a Paris hotel corridor, before hurtling the camera backward and cutting to eerie CCTV footage inside the elevator. It’s a simple evocation of the imminent tragedy in the Pont de l’Alma underpass, from which lenser Rainer Klausmann’s camera can then hang respectfully back.
The film rewinds two years to the couple’s meet-cute in a London hospital, where Diana is visiting the sick husband of her friend and acupuncturist, Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo (Geraldine James). There she encounters twinkle-eyed, Pakistan-born heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), and very soon suggests that her locally convenient and open-all-hours Kensington Palace kitchen might prove a nice alternative to his workplace canteen. Cue perky scenes in which Diana’s attempts at healthy home cooking are wasted on a man with a penchant for Burger King, and who is revealed to be a wine-chugging, soccer-supporting jazz fan who happily lights up indoors. Well, it was 1995.
While Hirschbiegel’s direction and a crack technical team class up the production, the same can’t always be said of Stephen Jeffreys’ script, which is belabored by clunky exposition and struggles to convincingly depict two real people actually in love. Watts’ at times deft impersonation of the doe-eyed beauty similarly never coheres into a full-fledged performance, or offers much insight into the enigma that lurks within. The decision to keep the rest of the royal family offscreen — only sons William (Laurence Belcher) and Harry (Harry Holland) are briefly glimpsed — may have intended to set the film apart from TV fare such as 1992’s “Charles & Diana: A Palace Divided,” or simply to keep the focus on the central relationship. But their conspicuous absence further undermines any sense of Diana as a rounded human being.
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Drawing on optioned source material “Diana: Her Last Love” by Kate Snell, the film satisfyingly shows the princess flourishing under Khan’s encouragement, gaining confidence in her growing role as a humanitarian campaigner. But the facts of the case hardly deliver the story beats ideally required by a romantic drama. In particular, the principal obstacle to any union — her beau’s trepidation at the impact of media attention on his important work — won’t satisfy viewers spoiled by the regular imaginings of Nicholas Sparks. Finally, Diana’s cynical last act, as depicted here — her manipulation of the media and Fayed to make Khan jealous — makes for a protagonist that’s hard to root for or much like. More generous viewers will keep in mind Diana’s less-than-equanimous mental state, as well as her earlier apology for being a “mad bitch stalker.”
Tech credits are pro, and David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia’s score earns points for its surprising restraint. Ample production coin permitted shooting in London, Mozambique and Pakistan, with Croatia doubling for other locales. Fans of Watts’ earlier work in “Mulholland Dr.” may experience a wry smile when Diana seems to become almost a different person thanks to the deployment of a wig, her alter ego even eliciting lustful looks from oblivious, admiring males in the gay heart of London’s Soho district.