Review by Ras H. Siddiqui
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s movie “Diana” is an ambitious film, one which might face initial viewer reservations because many in our generation still have vivid memories of the late Lady Diana Spencer. As Princess of Wales or just Lady Di, she was one member of the British Royalty who touched the hearts and minds of millions around the globe as she became Britain’s most glamorous face to the world. Her controversial life was followed closely by us even before the internet brought many more famous private lives into the public domain (whether we like it or not).
That this movie is about a tragic end is a secret between the reader here and the rest of the world (no spoiler alerts are needed on that count). Diana and her very public companion Dodi Fayed and driver Henri Paul were killed as a result of a car accident (conspiracy theorists may disagree) in a Paris tunnel in August 1997. The world mourned her; she had become a Princess to the planet partly because of her work on behalf of numerous charities and noble causes, and her very public private life. The media just couldn’t get enough of her. A member of the British Royalty “Going Muslim”, her dating a Pakistani and later a Middle Easterner certainly made big news. This fact may not always have been appreciated at home, but it was looked at and followed with a great deal of interest around the world. With that thought in mind, we turn to the film, which not surprisingly focuses on her rollercoaster romance with life itself.
The film starts off in Paris on the tragic day of August 31, 1997 as she prepares for her final journey. Diana’s single look back as she and her entourage enter an elevator head out of the hotel is significant. First, it really introduces us to Naomi Watts playing her character (one of the initial difficulties for any fan of Lady Di is getting used to someone else acting as her). The issue that Diana fought for; the control of landmines is also brought into the movie very early, but it is her and Dodi Fayed making the media headlines which is of much more interest to the world instead.
We move quickly visit an earlier time where the Princess is shown at a charity fundraiser, hounded by reporters, getting intense paparazzi attention, and appearing to be very tired of it all. She comes back to the palace where she sends all of her personal security and domestic help away and sleeps alone. She talks in front of the mirror is shown reflecting on her marriage to Prince Charles. “There were three of us in this marriage. So it was a bit crowded,” she says, a window into her inner troubles and loneliness.
She confides in Oonagh (Geraldine James) while undergoing acupuncture and shares a fearful dream she has of falling. Oonagh tells her that she is always giving in her life and the hard part for her is receiving love. Diana adds that her fear is having no one there to catch her during her fall. This also becomes significant to the storyline (based on the book “Diana Her Last Love” by Kate Snell) in the latter part of the movie. The public Diana and the private one are both played well by Naomi Watts who makes the switch appear seamless. She is asked by her private secretary Patrick (Charles Edwards) to join in naming a submarine but she expresses a preference for events involving helping people instead.
She is called to a Royal Kensington Hospital emergency room where a loved one is in need of attention. And it is here that Diana first meets Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) whom everyone seems to think of very highly. Hasnat barely acknowledges Diana during their first encounter but that changes somewhat quickly as a very private man and a very public woman fall in love. To elaborate here, a Muslim doctor who is fond of jazz music, hamburgers, smoking cigarettes, quoting the poet Rumi, and consuming old grape juice enters into a relationship with the world’s most famous woman who is on the outs with her husband but loves her children (Prince William and Prince Harry) very much.
This movie could easily have been titled “Diana & Hasnat” because they dominate it almost completely and it is their story. All others appear rather briefly. Prince Charles does not appear at all and the royal kids are but a glimpse here. The other characters are not really developed enough to be mentioned, except for Diana’s confidantes Oonagh and Sonia (Juliet Stevenson) and a couple of members of Hasnat’s family, namely his mother Naheed Khan (Usha Khan) and family elder Samundar (Art Malik) who actually have some meaningful dialogue. The Lahore segment of the movie is quite colorful. Lahoris fell in love with Diana when she visited Cricket Great Imran Khan and his Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in the city in 1996. Diana also secretly met Hasnat’s family during that Lahore visit.
The meeting between Hasnat Khan’s mother Naheed and Diana will certainly attract a great deal of South-Asian (not just Pakistani) Diaspora attention. A unique and polite culture clash takes place between the two. “Yes, the English say sorry so beautifully,” says Naheed, putting the post-Partition British-Desi relationship on ice.
“Diana” the movie is about a difficult love story. Full credit goes to Naomi Watts for filling in some impossible shoes and making us believe that she actually is Lady Diana. And kudos for Naveen Andrews for making Muslim men look good for a change in western movies while playing the role of a light hearted romantic. Together they have made this cross-cultural romance worth watching.
Fact, fiction or a little of both, only Dr. Hasnat Khan who is alive today really knows what happened between him and Lady Diana Spencer. For us film buffs (or critics from South-Asia) the movie has something to offer mainly because of the historical perspective, plus the acting and careful directing. And the script although somewhat weak in parts is in the end saved by a very pretty woman looking back at us and the poetry of Rumi.
(“Diana” the movie is slated for release in the United States on November 1, 2013. Pictures courtesy of © 2013 Entertainment One Films US).