Never mind that Naomi Watts, who plays the title role in Diana, doesn’t look or sound like the late Princess Of Wales. Plenty of smart biopics ditch impressions in favor of interpretations, and there’s a germ of a smart biopic in Diana; the problem is that it’s tucked away behind a clunky structure and even clunkier dialogue.
Diana begins on the night of its subject’s death. The opening shot, a complex and elegant Steadicam take, starts on a crowd of paparazzi waiting in the street, then crosses a hotel balcony into a luxury suite. Inside, the camera follows Diana, her face unseen, as she putters from room to room before indicating to her boyfriend (Cas Anvar) and bodyguards that she’s finally ready to leave. Opening with the paparazzi (cleared in an inquest, but still popularly blamed for her death) may seem like cheap premonition, but it neatly lays out the relationship between Diana and the media, whom she alternately provokes and resents.
The bulk of the movie focuses on the two years that preceded Princess Diana’s death and on her relationship with Pakistani surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews, his trademark long curls cut and straightened into a conservative part). Hasnat is a charmingly stubborn, chain-smoking jazzbo—the opposite that inevitably attracts polite, rehearsed Diana. Her inability to maintain their romance while also maintaining her relationship with the media forms Diana’s core.
It’s a strong dynamic to build a film on, but Diana mismanages it. Much of the movie is taken up with widescreen re-stagings of its subject’s most famous photo ops, paparazzi shots, and TV interviews. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth scene-setting title card, the human element disappears. Characters recite their entire worldviews and continually reiterate basic plot points (a drinking game could be built around how many times people say “You’re the most famous woman in the world”), which contributes to the book-report vibe. A movie that’s essentially about how people relate to one other and the larger world loses sight of its characters and, as a result, loses all sense of purpose.