Stars: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenwriter: Stephen Jeffreys
Screening: general release
RICHARD Curtis, Britain’s master of the rom com, may not be the first name that springs to mind in considering the right writer for a film about Princess Diana’s ill-fated love affair with the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. But some radical surgery on Curtis’ part could certainly have helped here.
That highly experienced royal interpreter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Audience) could also have livened things up, if given the chance. But he would have shown us political Diana, the canny media manipulator and the war she waged with Prince Charles’ press office during their separation.
British playwright Stephen Jeffreys, who did end up with the job of writing Diana, prefers not to dwell on that angle. He gives every sign of having produced the screenplay on bended knee with a box of tissues close at hand.
It’s ‘‘Diana, the Weepie’’, the story of a romance between two saintly figures drawn together by their shared desire to perform good works, which may have been true. But in this case, truth is no defence. The result is excruciating.
It’s love at first sight, at least on Diana’s part. He takes another five minutes to succumb. They meet, fittingly enough, at a hospital where the husband of Oonagh Toffalo (Geraldine James), one of Diana’s therapists, has been admitted with cardiac arrest.
Khan (Naveen Andrews) has saved his life and Naomi Watts’ Diana is standing at Oonagh’s side, gazing up at him from under her fringe in a way that echoes the real Diana while playing as pure parody.
Watts gets everything right – the voice, the expressions, the flirtatiousness, the sudden bursts of temperament – without managing to translate any of it into reality.
She’s always been an actress who makes everything seem effortless.
This time round, the work is all you see.
Khan is swiftly cajoled into showing her around the hospital and a late-night supper at Kensington Palace follows soon afterwards, accompanied by banter laboriously built around her nervousness about cooking for him and his belated confession he would rather have a hamburger, followed by a cigarette.
Both seem so inhibited by the burden of impersonation that there’s no hint of sexual tension. He’s stolid, she’s faintly hysterical, possibly because Watts is struggling with the realisation her diligent study of Diana’s every mannerism is proving no use at all in conjuring up a sense of intimacy.
The film was directed by Germany’s Oliver Hirschbiegel, best known for Downfall, his subtle, harrowing film about the final days of the Third Reich.
In the gloom of Hitler’s bunker, he knew what he was doing. In the bright light that shone on Diana’s every move, he loses his bearings.
Supporting characters were colourfully equipped to lend texture to the characters of the royals. In contrast, this film feels woefully under-populated. Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell (Douglas Hodge), and Patrick Jephson (Charles Edwards), her private secretary, both hover in the background but her exchanges with them are stilted.
Her tours of Bosnia and Angola, campaigning for the elimination of landmines, are covered in a dutiful way, as is her trip to Australia for the Victor Chang foundation – an undertaking inspired by the fact Khan had been one of Chang’s students.
She also takes off to meet Khan’s family in Pakistan, where she fails to win over his mother. This has been condemned as a fabrication by Khan, who has said his family never objected to the romance.
In the end, the film shapes up mainly as a reminder of how well Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren slipped under the skin of Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. Their performances, too, were acts of mimicry but were animated by leaps of the imagination, together with scripts that provided the right pulse points.
This screenplay lends no such encouragement. It leaves Watts floundering.