The Diana movie, icon worship or tacky biopic?

A controversial biopic starring Naomi Watts focuses on the last two years of Princess Diana's life and has drawn particularly harsh reviews in Britain, perhaps because the subject is someone on whom so many different dreams are projected.

Controversial movie starring Naomi Watts opens in North American theatres today

A composite shows Diana, Princess of Wales, during a 1989 visit to Jakarta, Indonesia, left, and as portrayed by actress Naomi Watts in the movie Diana that opens in North America today. (Kraipit Phanvuta/AFP/Getty/Embankment Films)

Royal attention of late has focused on a chubby-cheeked baby prince who is seen as key to the future of the British monarchy. But a movie hitting screens across North America today takes viewers back to a time of considerably more controversy for the House of Windsor.

If British film critics are to be believed, the royal biopic Diana serves up a remarkable kind of cinematic failure, coming across as everything from "cheap and cheerless" to a "special class of awful."

Diana, Princess of Wales, arrives at left at the Core Trust Day Centre in London. At right, Naomi Watts walks on set of the movie Diana on Aug. 8, 2012 in London. (Photo by Neil Mockford/FilmMagic) (Tim Graham/Getty Images/Neil Mockford/FilmMagic)

The movie focuses on the last two years of the life of the Princess of Wales (baby Prince George's grandmother), and particularly her ill-fated relationship with cardiac surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan, which ended just before her death in 1997.

Critics and viewers may debate the veracity of what plays out on screen — some say it's wildly inaccurate, others suggest it offers realistic insights. Khan has said it's a "betrayal" of their relationship.

But there's little doubt that this film, with Naomi Watts in the title role, taps into an image of Diana that has lost little if any lustre 16 years after her shocking death following a car crash in Paris.

"She's just become this iconic princess who was real," says Bonnie Brownlee, CBC's royal commentator.

"I think we're fascinated still with the whole notion that somebody could be married to a prince and live in multiple palaces and have a sad life and die at the hands of a drunk driver. It's the tragedy of it," says Brownlee.  

"She became this larger-than-life beauty at 20 that took over our hearts and minds. People, women in particular, could dream to be her. I know it sounds … too simple, but I actually think it's that simple."

Never at peace

There may be other factors at play, too, in keeping Diana's iconic image so prominent, and in making this movie such a lightning rod of emotion.

"She's never been allowed to rest in peace, basically," says royal biographer Penny Junor, in an interview from London.

Naveen Andrews appears as Dr. Hasnat Khan and Naomi Watts is Diana, Princess of Wales, in the biopic Diana. (Laurie Sparham/Entertainment One Films/Associated Press)

"The newspapers have known that there are these people, there's a sizable proportion of the community, that will buy anything that's got a photograph of her on the front and it sells newspapers.

"I think it's almost as unpleasantly simple as that."

Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and blogger, sees the key to Diana's iconic image lying in the way she combined a "glamorous, beautiful image with a certain vulnerability."

"She was seen as someone who was both this iconic figure, and someone the public could relate to as she was an all-too-human figure with complexities."

Some of those complexities are on full display in Diana, particularly her uneasy and manipulative relationship with the media.

Brownlee says the criticism the movie received in England "may be, to some extent," a fair assessment of the film. But she also sees the criticism representing an attempt by British society in general to protect Diana "because she's theirs."

Diana director Oliver Hirschbiegel, a German filmmaker whose previous works include Downfall, a movie looking at the last days of Adolf Hitler, told the BBC he had "no regrets" about making the royal biopic, despite its dismal reception.

"I think for the British, Diana is still a trauma they haven't come to terms with," Hirschbiegel said.

Trappings and entrapment

Watching Diana took Brownlee "back to the loneliness" of the life a woman who married Prince Charles at age 20 and who was divorced amid great public spectacle 14 years later.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, shown arriving for the world premiere of Diana in London on Sept 5, 2013, has told the BBC he has no regrets about making the film. ( Joel Ryan/Invision/Associated Press)

"You actually see how difficult it was for her to maintain any kind of a relationship even with girlfriends and you get the sense of the trappings of being a royal princess — and then the entrapment of being a royal princess."

Khan, the heart surgeon Diana met while visiting a London hospital, has, according to the Daily Mail newspaper, called the movie a "betrayal" of their relationship. Among other things, he said his family never objected to his relationship with Diana, contrary to what is said in the film.

Junor also questions the accuracy of the movie, noting that Khan didn't co-operate in its making. She also says that sons William and Harry have found it difficult to take her memory being dredged up all the time.

"I think all the stories they have found very hard. And I think the making of this film for exactly that reason is a bit tacky."

Diana and Grace

Biopics can be magnets for criticism from different quarters.

Harris, the royal historian, says it's interesting that the criticism levelled at Diana seems to be part of a "general trend" in relation to films about iconic figures.

Diana meets with members of a Bosnian volleyball team who suffered injuries from landmines on Aug. 9, 1997, less than a month before her death. (Ian Waldie/Associated Press)

An upcoming movie with Nicole Kidman taking on the title role of Grace Kelly has also been roundly criticized by the children of the Hollywood-star-turned princess of Monaco.

Grace Kelly died after a stroke and car crash at age 52 in 1982. And as Harris sees it, "Diana will probably be placed in a wider context with Grace Kelly and other figures of that kind who became known for being these iconic, glamorous figures who died suddenly before their time."

While the iconic image may linger, there's no guarantee it will translate into a box office bonanza.

In England, Diana opened early last month in fifth place, the Guardian newspaper reported. The next week, it fell to ninth.

Alanna Glicksman, a Toronto-based public relations consultant who has an entertainment blog and follows the royals, expects some Canadians will go to see the movie.

"Do I think it's going to be a blockbuster and top movie of the weekend? Probably not, just because it still is a little bit niche. As much as people love Diana, I don't know if that's the first movie people are going to run to theatres to see, but I still think it's a story that interests people."


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