Diana, the new biopic of the late socialite, humanitarian poseur and ‘People’s Princess’, is looking a firm contender for royal turkey of the year. Originally, it seemed like an intriguing proposition. Helmed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, lauded for his 2004 film Downfall, which dramatised the final 10 days of Hitler’s reign, the mind boggled as to what the esteemed director hoped to draw out of this new subject. The end product however is a lazy, soft-focus two hours that the critics have rightfully panned; one reviewer dubbing it the stuff of a ‘Channel 5 midweek matinee’.
Charting Diana’s love affair with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, the film casts the erstwhile Lady Spencer as a kind of aristocratic Bridget Jones – during one scene in which she haphazardly tries to cook for her new beau, you half expect her to serve up some blue soup on the royal china. The rest is spattered with hackneyed one-liners, some oh-so-poignantly playing on the concept of a lovelorn heart surgeon meeting his ‘queen of hearts’, doled out by two actors (Naomi Watts and Naveen Andrews) who look visibly embarrassed as they deliver them.
Now, while a bad film getting a kicking by the critics is hardly a revelation, considering the long-standing media obsession with this film’s eponymous subject you’d have thought there’d have been uproar, rather than blithe, jokey dismissal. Indeed, Diana is the woman who, following her death in 1997 and in recurrent reappraisals of her legacy, has been hailed as a defining figure of her time. For some, she was a landmine-thwarting humanitarian, others a republican firebrand who exposed the dark side of the Windsors, but above all else she’s charged with redefining the national character – her untimely demise leaving the stiff upper lip quivering with very public sorrow.
In the mounds of flowers that lined the gates of Kensington Palace to the weepy vox pops that seemed to keep EastEnders off the nation’s screens for weeks after her passing, many commentators saw a birth of a new openness that had blown out Britain’s crusty cobwebs. At the time, the New Statesman argued that the ensuing emotionalist circus had ‘shown, even celebrated, the end of the age of deference, the triumphant confirmation that Britain is not, and need not be, a conservative country, but a dynamic, liberal place’.
Whether it was because we were cheering her one-woman war against the royals or were in awe of her saintly embrace of the world’s poor little brown people, Diana was a galvanising figure whose tragic departure was so horrific it wrested us free of collective emotional repression. With the election of New Labour having ended what seemed like an eternity of buttoned-up Tory rule, liberalism had set us and our emotions free to mourn this great figure, or so the reasoning goes.