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Royal Pain

Diana (2013)

Laurie Sparham/Le Pacte

History has more or less made its judgment on Britain's former Princess of Wales, but what it will make of the current state of the biopic industry is anybody's guess. The double whammy of "Diana" and "Rush" in close proximity suggests that the English-speaking end of the genre can be easily rendered speechless, finding nothing left to say and apparently no new ways left to say it. Excepting some wild-card swerves like casting Cate Blanchett as an avatar of Bob Dylan, mainstream depiction of people in the public eye seems to have lost most of its audacity, unable to gain traction when fame means already being lost into the pulping machine of celebrity and voyeurism and prurience. No coincidence surely that documentarians are currently running rings around feature film makers when it comes to biography, or that those feature films are reduced to the most literal self-explanatory approaches to the material. You don't have to have met Diana Spencer to spot that the character in "Diana" is a sketchy outline, you just have to have met another human being. A scriptwriter can type "Diana feels nameless existential dread in a Paris hotel corridor" with a straight face, but see that exact thing and the floor opens up beneath you.

"Diana" is a tough watch; not automatically because of the topic but because it lacks both nerve and verve, when either would have been welcome. Naomi Watts's gifts as a performer allow her to catch something of Diana's body language and intonation, but the bone structure isn't right, since Ms. Watts was born for a life in front of the camera and Ms. Spencer had one forced upon her. (The same problem befalls Chris Hemsworth in "Rush," who can hardly be blamed for that film's transformation of James Hunt into a golden God.) Naveen Andrews fares better as Hasnat Khan, partly because the character is less immediately familiar, but mainly since Mr. Khan frequently behaves like a relaxed human being while everyone else seems to have been starched. The required quota of real-life characters from the periphery arrive by parachute, which always looks like authenticity on paper but just scales up the potential for mild indignity. Renowned heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard gets a scene, incarnated by renowned scene-stealer Michael Byrne as a faintly cherubic Yoda. "Lunch with Clive James," intones Diana's secretary, dragging in another innocent bystander who by now has suffered enough.

The film at least does Diana the courtesy of showing her inclination to manipulate the media and those around her to suit her own ends. But those elements are swamped by other attempts to show her as suffering from the heartaches of a very normal person, which end up looking like the heartaches of a very normal rom-com protagonist. Trying to accommodate these two viewpoints leads the film to deal in unwise short cuts rather than necessary shorthand. The scenes in which Diana dons disguises and wanders around London might be based on fact, but the wolf-whistles and leers she gets when she does are from a different film, perhaps one starring Jennifer Aniston. (It doesn't help that in disguise the character is a dead-ringer for gorgeous actor Naomi Watts.) The strangest moment of all is the occasion when a blind man caresses Diana's face, accompanied by such straight-faced religiosity that he could presumably see again shortly afterward. "Diana" opts to play everything in such a prosaic manner that nuance goes out of the window, inevitably followed by perspective and all contrary viewpoints. Any biopic that declines to contain more than one aspect of its subject is likely to be all pic and no bio, which duly leaves "Diana" feeling as modern as possible and also a dead loss.


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