I can only assume the title The Princess and the Surgeon was already taken. And yet this film about Princess Diana’s relationship with cardiologist Hasnat Khan carries with it the whiff of Harlequin, the mouldy and tired air of a cottage paperback left on the dock.
Thus we see Naomi Watts, gazing up through spidery lashes – the mascara technician might be the film’s sole prospect in awards season – and saying, “Now that I’ve been loved, I don’t feel lonely any more.” Famously, she felt unloved by her husband, the Prince of Wales, and his calcified-in-tradition family. Her king of hearts, was most unlikely: a fast-food loving, chain-smoking genius of a Pakistani doctor.
You’d think that director Oliver Hirschbiegel, celebrated for his end-of-days Third Reich film Downfall, would have a feast with such material. The story is largely unknown to the general public: At its centre is one of the most famous women of the 20th century, a fascinating, contradictory character, both saintly and unhinged, engaged in a romance with a man who, on paper, could not be more unsuited to her. Yet the tale is presented so conventionally, from a “meet cute” in a hospital to a teary break-up in a London park, and so lacking in energy or spirit, so clod-hopping in dialogue, that it could be mid-afternoon filler on the Hallmark Channel.
When Diana first encounters Khan (Naveen Andrews, gamely playing a reluctant, pudgy love god), she gives him the full benefit of her famous gaze. He is oblivious, because he is, as he reminds us repeatedly, a heart surgeon, which means he has never looked at a newspaper or TV. He does not recognize her, which sets Diana’s ticker fluttering. “Can a heart actually be broken?” she asks by way of flirtatious banter over some delicious Burger King take-away at Kensington Palace. He lights a cigarette and looks pensive, or perhaps it’s just heartburn.
In the end, it’s too much for Khan. After hiding in the trunk of her car to avoid snickering policemen, dodging paparazzi and enduring envious thumbs-up from his colleagues the lovelorn doctor gives up his one heart’s desire. And we all know what happens then: Dodi Fayed and a dark Paris tunnel.
Naomi Watts, so talented and capable in other roles, is stymied here. Perhaps Diana’s life and face are still too familiar, so that any interpretation seems like stiff impersonation. It’s too bad, because a German director would seem free to explore Diana’s story in a way that English filmmakers might not. (Remember that it took an American actress to bring Margaret Thatcher to life.)
The British still seem not to have come to terms with their Queen of Hearts: their joy at her freshness, their sadness at losing her, the uneasiness they feel about the tidal wave of grief that followed her death. There’s a movie to be made about that story, a good one. This is not it.