Naomi Watts and director Oliver Hirschbiegel have defended their decision to wade into the treacherous waters of Diana biopics, despite a bloodbath on review pages.
Watts plays the highly publicised title role in this behind-the-palace-gates look at Diana’s relationship with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. But critics have called the film exploitative and its execution “risible”.
Watts and her fellow cast members are held captive by an abject script that provides little for any of them to work with. Reviewers have been publishing top-10 lists of the film’s most cringe-worthy moments.
Welsh-Australian Watts says she hesitated before accepting the role. She was concerned about the reaction to the film.
“Also the sensitivity of it,” the actor told reporters, including AAP, in London. “How would people feel about this? But I realised that this story was bound to be told at some point.”
Hirschbiegel feels it was an important film to make.
“I very much see it as a correction of the memory really, because I think her legacy had gotten quite confused,” the director told AAP.
“People simply had forgotten about all the other things that she had done and what she stood for while she was alive.”
The film encompasses the two years between Diana’s divorce from Charles and her death in Paris. Hirschbiegel, who was previously lauded for his depiction of Hitler’s last days in 2004’s Downfall, said the period was a decisive one for the Princess of Wales.
“She really reinvented herself from just being a humanitarian sponsoring charities. She really invented a new kind of charity. She became not just a campaigner, sort of like a stateswoman and her achievement was a landmark,” he said.
Hirschbiegel said the last years of Diana’s life had been overshadowed by the circumstances of her death. Her relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, with whom she died in 1997, is heavily downplayed in the film. Fayed’s role is relegated to a rebound fling. Diana is seen to manipulate the tabloid press to make Khan jealous of her new lover.
The media plays a key role in the film’s plot. The relationship between Khan, played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews, and Diana slowly fragments as it becomes evident he is not willing to be caught up the public obsession with Diana.
Watts said she sympathised with the Princess’s struggle to live under constant scrutiny and harassment.
“I’ve had tastes of it. Of the frustrations and the interference of people following you or obstructing you or being misunderstood or misquoted or misrepresented by the press. And it’s irritating and it’s upsetting, hurtful.”
But the film itself straddles the divide between respect and invasion with little grace, mostly falling into a dull space between.
“I certainly didn’t do anything disrespectful,” said Hirschbiegel. “But the aim was never to be respectful or to do like a glamorising portrayal of her.”
This has led to charges of both cashing-in and sentimentalism. London’s Daily Telegraph said the film “lacks the courage of its own exploitativeness”. But the major criticism of the film has been that it is simply bad.
“Diana says so little so listlessly that it doesn’t particularly offend historians, except by being absolutely terrible,” said the Guardian.
This is the ninth docudrama to reiterate some aspect of the Princess’s life and thus far the only one to avoid going straight to TV. Its opening weekend in the UK was estimated to gross a mediocre STG623,051, leaving it in fifth place.
The film’s writing almost obscures a really fine, somewhat stoic, performance from Watts. Critics and director agree that she is a high-calibre actor.
“A swan in a turkey,” said one critic.
Watts, whose outward appearance is only fleetingly similar to the Princess, wore a prosthetic nose and a wig for filming. Despite aesthetic challenges, Watts’ impersonation of Diana’s accent and mannerisms has earned praise.
Hirschbiegel said: “She’s not just a brilliant actress, she’s very good physically and she’s very bright which always helps.”
Watts described feeling daunted by the prospect of playing “the most famous woman of our time, when everybody feels they know her so well”. But she said the challenge spurred her to take on the role.
Hirschbiegel said the apprehension had inspired Watts to produce a fine performance.
“I think every artist would agree that a certain fear of a challenge is the best energy to come out with something powerful. So I think she did tackle it brilliantly,” he said.
Critics have suggested that, in this case, perhaps Watts should have listened to her intuition.