~ Posted by Nicholas Barber, September 19th 2013

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s contentious new film, "Diana", imagines the private conversations between Princess Diana and her secret lover, Hasnat Khan. Given that Diana isn’t around to provide her side of the story, and Khan has kept his side of the story to himself, it was always going to be a morally questionable enterprise. But it could at least have been an entertaining one, as "The Queen" demonstrated. The trouble with "Diana" is that the film-makers were obviously uncomfortable about their project’s ethical iffiness, and they dealt with that discomfort in precisely the wrong way: they opted to be boringly nice about every single one of their characters.

In their eyes, Diana (Naomi Watts, doing a "Spitting Image" impersonation) may be simpering, but she’s essentially kind, loyal and generally angelic. Khan’s only flaws are his dedication to his work as a heart surgeon, and his devotion to his family in Pakistan. Diana’s friends, her security guards, her butler, her acupuncturistthey're troupers, one and all. The Princess doesn’t even have a bad word to say about Prince Charles or Prince Philip, neither of whom appears onscreen. And while she may make the odd impatient remark about "the Palace", she never hints at who the string-puller at the Palace might be.

Hirschbiegel and Stephen Jeffreys, the film’s screenwriter, have done whatever the opposite of having your cake and eating it isrefusing to eat your cake and then chucking it in the bin? They’ve projected somebody’s most intimate moments onto the big screen, which is dubious enough, but they’ve also made those intimate moments as bland as possible. Didn’t Diana ever discuss how she felt about Camilla, or why she arranged her interview with Martin Bashir, or why she chose landmines to campaign against? Presumably she did, and presumably those discussions would have lent themselves to some gripping drama. But in Hirschbiegel’s coy and timid Mills & Boon romance, she and Khan are far too busy chatting about "Coronation Street" and Burger King (a royal theme’s emerging there) to get onto anything more controversial. It’s as if "The Social Network" had concentrated on the flirtation between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, and only mentioned Facebook in passing.

The most embarrassing dialogue, though, comes when the happy couple broaches the subject of cardiac surgery. Diana’s worst line: "So, hearts can’t actually be broken?" And Khan’s: "You don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you."

Nicholas Barber is the film previewer for Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Bring back the green goo and Bad guys, the Richard Curtis way