The new film Diana is, at times, bathetic, intermittently moving, certainly torrid, vivid and subversive. It is based on the book Last Love by Kate Snell, (2001). Even if half true, the story is extraordinary and yet now only hazily remembered, if at all. A few weeks before the princess died, she had, once again, been disappointed by a man. Hasnat Khan, a skilful heart surgeon, was, apparently the love of her life. Khan loved her deeply too, but knew the relationship was doomed. He was Pakistani, a dedicated doctor and a private man. She had no private life. It ended in tears and she threw herself into the waiting arms of Dodi Fayed. Then came the crash and she was no more.
From a miserable childhood, she had gone into to a bad arranged marriage with a charmless and faithless Prince and given him children- two boys!. Then she was cast adrift. When lost and finding her new self, she came across and fell for Khan. Millions around the world were bewitched by her. She was vulnerable and manipulative, had beauty and charisma, her own sorrows and intuitive compassion for war and other victims. Fans and foes all have an imagined princess in their heads. Can art ever imitate such a life? Those who try are hampered by their own limitations or the hostility that flares up when Diana is their chosen subject. Unsurprisingly the movie has been slated and so too German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, seen as an interloper.
Another barrier is the social context- the prevailing values and perceptions. After Diana’s death, Britons were less moon-eyed about the monarchy. Using PR the Royals have deleted the unhappy princess from their narrative and the nation forgot her. The monarchs are back on top and all’s well with their world. Stephen Frears’ The Queen was a hit because it chimed with the monarchist mood. Anyone upsetting the restored order is asking for trouble.
Diana does that by reminding audiences of how cruel the Royals were to the princess, how they only let her see her boys every five weeks, how desolate and lonely she often was. Naomi Watts conveys that isolation beautifully and Diana’s vivacity and rebelliousness too.
Several inviteees at the pre-release screening were noisily derisive, tittering and guffawing, especially during the love and sex scenes. Some of the lines and delivery are indeed embarrassingly bad and Naveen Andrews, who plays Khan is too stiff and unappealing, but there are moments too when the actors are so tender and intimate, the camera so close to them, you feel you are intruding. They laughed when Andrews quoted lines from the soulful, old poet Rumi, when Watts watched him operate on a patient, when she went off to Pakistan to try to win over his extended family and so on and on. I wondered then whether the laughs were expressing unconscious disquiet. Was it too much for some to watch Diana being touched and fucked by a ‘Paki’ or obviously at ease with his family in Lahore? I only ask the question which, thus far, has been avoided by film experts.
This is the tenth docudrama on Princess Diana. Catherine Oxenburg, distantly related to the royals who played her in 1982 and Nicola Formby, Diana in The Women of Windsor in 1992 had goodish reviews. But modern audiences have the bacilli of cynicism in their guts. Filmic romantic tragedies evoked high emotions in earlier decades. Not any more, unless they are consciously nostalgic and go back to war-torn lovers or damaged past celebs such as Marilyn Monroe.
But what about other art forms? Is Diana served better by novels, say? Not so far. Monica Ali’s Untold Story , in which an implausible Diana survives the crash and ends up in a crashingly boring American suburb was a terrible disappointment. The fine writer could have given us the interior life of a complex heroine but didn’t, perhaps couldn’t. Except for a couple of self published books there has been no fictional exploration of the most alluring woman in the 20th century. ( Imagine a contemporary La Liaison Dangerous) . No high poetry either, not even by feminists.
Our wordsmiths either don’t care to or don’t dare.
Visual representations are plentiful, most traditional, boring portraits and busts. Some arty photographers did catch Diana’s spirit. Mario Testino’s wonderful pictures show her happy and flirty, unbound, and are more alive than any painting. Individuals artists and sculptors have sometimes been inspired to produce works of depth . One is Toronto artist Yuri Firstov whose bronze sculpture has her in a tiara and ball gown, a lifeless woman, playing a role. There is now a bronze monument in Harrods too- lifesized Diana and Dodi, dancing while an albatross hovers above them. Commissioned by Al-Fayyad, it is a symbol of the private loss of a father which he wants the public to witness. TO HERE These are exceptions floating in conspicuous invisibility.
Popular culture has been either trite or indifferent. Elton John wrote Candle in the Wind for Marilyn and sang it at Diana’s funeral, but no songs have been created for the betrayed, heartbroken Princess. Museums and fashion designers flaunt her dresses, as if that is what she was. The Diana memorial in Althorp is closing down; the watery memorial in Hyde Park is amusing for children but almost intentionally dull. Only the Princess of Wales Orchid House in Kew seems to reflect Diana’s rare beauty and nature.
But for me, the artistic tribute that was truly worthy of Diana was that forest of perfumed and bright flowers and simple notes laid in front of Kensington Palace, expressing true and unmediated grief. I went there- in spite of my republicanism- to be with this profusion of people, men and women, black and white. Nothing since has ever matched the power of that spontaneous shrine. The flowers didn’t last, nor did she. The last scene in Diana, has Khan putting down flowers and the Rumi couplet. I wept all over again.
The Independent on Sunday, Arts, 20th September 2013