Anyone who remembers the terrible events of Aug. 31, 1997, probably associates the name of Diana, Princess of Wales and former wife of Prince Charles, with Dodi Fayed, the man she was reportedly dating at the time. But there's another name that may be less familiar to history: Heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, the very private man with whom Diana carried on an affair in secret.
As "Diana," the film by director Oliver Hirschbiegel (based on the book of the same title by Kate Snell, and adapted for the screen by Stephen Jeffreys) has it, Diana (Naomi Watts, "The Impossible," "The Painted Veil") met Khan (Naveen Andrews, "Lost," "The English Patient") while visiting a sick friend in a London hospital. Instantly intrigued by Khan, Diana sets about engineering another opportunity to meet him; a (phone number is exchanged; before either of them knows it, Khan is a dinner guest at Kensington Palace, and things take off from there.)
Khan is depicted as somewhat overbearing, and Diana as a bit of a wet noodle. But their affair seems to do them both some good, with Diana taking an interest in such issues as the toll inflicted on civilian populations by land mines, and Khan learning that a man needs more than a singular focus and bluster to get by in life. The lovers walk a knife's edge, with the eager ranks of the tabloid press prepared to pounce on any good bit of gossip; at one point, Diana is reduced to slipping around people's back gardens, clambering over fences in a trench coat like a 16-year-old. At other junctures, she resorts to a wig, and dresses down to enjoy the occasional evening out with her man.
Princess, surgeon, the authority of history -- it should be enough to generate drama and romance, and yet the movie just never clicks into a satisfying whole. There's plenty of glamor, and not just at Kensington Palace; Khan's bachelor pad has a kind of roughshod, nibbled-around-the-corners appeal, and the lovers seem perfectly comfortable snuggling down there for an evening. But there's little graciousness here, and Diana comes across less as a savvy, smart woman coming into her own power than a waif in need of strong male companionship for guidance, and even protection.
Things take an especially dismal turn after the two call it off -- first Khan, who announces in a mundane breakup scene at his flat that there is no way to make it work, and then, subsequent to that, Diana, who flies into a shrill fit of rage during a clandestine meeting at Hyde Park and rushes off into the dark, barefoot like Cinderella bereft of her Prince Charming. In what seems to be a bid to spark jealousy in Khan, Diana agrees to spend a holiday on Dodi Fayed's luxurious yacht -- and then gives a call to her pals in the press, whom she seeks to play to her own advantage.
It all goes wrong, of course, culminating in a chase between Diana's driver and the paparazzi, with a fatal crash the end result... not that we see any of this. The movie teases us at the start, opening with a street scene that could be taken for the site of a car crash, and then leaves us with our last sight of Diana that of her motoring off with Fayed. As far as Fayed goes, he's a cipher: We have little idea just who he is or what he's like; we don't know if Diana had any genuine affection for him or was simply using him; we don't know why (or even if) he had romantic feelings for "the most famous woman in the world."
The movie is full of such missed opportunities and glossed-over connections. We don't see Charles, and catch only a glimpse of young William and Harry; and while the film troubles itself to give us a mini lecture on land mines, it never ventures into the troubled terrain of Diana's rocky relationship with "Buckingham Palace," which is to say, her in-laws. In one sense, we completely understand the toll her life in the public eye took on Diana; but this movie is so flat, and so irritating, that by the end we, too, wish only to escape the royal walls that seem forever to be hemming her in.
Even the tragedy of Diana's death seems skipped over: Far from rent metal or blood, what we get is a sea of cellophane-wrapped bouquets, and Naveen Andrews, as Khan, leaving a handwritten note for his dear departed that quotes Rumi. The film, finally, turns out to be not about Diana at all, but about how good men look with her as their arm candy -- and how good they manage to keep on looking once she's no longer by their sides.