Early on in Oliver Hirschbiegel's mind-bogglingly misjudged Princess Diana biopic, we're shown a key recreated portion of her iconic BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, during which she admits to having self-harmed in the past. Naomi Watts, here taking on what was arguably always a poisoned chalice, has said that she became "obsessed" with re-watching the Bashir interview during her research, and the use of this segment in particular would seem to suggest that Hirschbiegel is approaching this as a promisingly layered character study.
Instead, you can almost hear screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys declaring "now, that's quite enough of that" as soon as he's able to tick off the Obligatory Psychological Delving box. At this point the script take a hard right turn into the less-than-fruitful dramatic pastures of Diana's affair with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), which is painted in dogged broad strokes that veer too frequently into unintentional comedy.
"With hearts, you don't perform the operation. The operation performs you," he tells her. "Can a heart actually be broken?" she later asks, earnestly. It's the dialogue that strikes you first – whereas it takes a while for the realization of just how bad the film is as a whole to sink in, you know the words are off from the start. People speak to one another in big themes and unfiltered personal statements; every conversation is exposition.
Hasnat is loose, easy-going, into improvising, which contrasts with Diana's regimented life. This dynamic is demonstrated perfectly well through action, but the two characters still have to have a five-minute conversation about just how very different their lives are. And then have it again, a few scenes later. It's a crushingly tedious back-and-forth dynamic that never convinces but nevertheless monopolises the running time.
Diana: Her Last Love was the title of the book that inspired Jeffreys's script, and it would have been infinitely more fitting for a film that has no real interest in the princess herself. If the decision not to touch on her struggles with depression, or bulimia, or self-harm was an attempt to be respectful, the effect here is the opposite. For all the histrionics she's driven to as the story progresses, Watts's Diana never feels more than skin-deep; she's a character without inner life, and what Watts gives is an impression, not a performance.
When you think of messy, raw, emotionally available turns Watts is likely to be among the first names that come to mind, in anything from Mulholland Drive to 21 Grams to this year's The Impossible. Watching her here feels almost like an optical illusion, because you simply don't believe that this actress can be giving this performance – it's stilted, overly mannered and bereft of anything human. In trying (understandably) to portray Diana accurately and reverentially, Watts has neglected to portray a person.
Not that the blame for this falls squarely on Watts; it's Jeffreys's script that fails to give her a soul. She states repeatedly her desire "to help people" and we see her famous walk through an Angolan minefield among other philanthropic trips, but none of it seems to matter as much as her desire to secure Hasnat's love, repeatedly and with increasing desperation. One especially progressive scene sees her win back his affections by sneaking into his flat and doing the dishes, a moment that would be inexplicable even if Andrews weren't such a drippy blank slate.
The voyeuristic intrusion of the press looms large, and some of Hirschbiegel's most interesting work is done to emphasise this, tracking Watts from behind in her scant moments of privacy. But it's tough to engage in these scenes when you sense that the film has about as much interest in the real Diana as the paparazzi that are hounding her.
Led by a pair of flat performances and featuring some of the corniest dialogue you'll hear all year, Diana is too incompetent even to qualify as hagiography, devoid of insight and – unforgivably – curiosity about its subject.