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Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana seeks to reintroduce us to one of the 20th century’s most famous figures by casting her in a new light—that of a lost, love-struck woman trying to write the next chapter in her embattled life in the public eye. Focusing on the years leading up to Diana, Princess of Wales’ death at the age of 36 in a car accident in the summer of 1997, Diana fails to offer much insight into the long-term relationship that, as the movie argues, helped her turn the corner after the dissolution of her marriage to Prince Charles. Some biopics seek to offer a complex, ambiguous take on their subjects—Diana, by comparison, is merely stubbornly uncurious.

The film stars Naomi Watts as Diana, setting the action in 1995 as she struggles to fill the hours in her large, empty palace. She and Charles have separated—he’s already begun his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles—and Diana mostly spends her time focusing on philanthropic endeavors. But a visit to a local hospital puts her in contact with a handsome, dedicated heart surgeon named Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), and a mutual attraction soon develops. But because of her international fame, they must proceed cautiously, particularly because the private Hasnat isn’t sure he can cope with the amount of attention Diana attracts from the media.

Using Kate Snell’s book Diana: Her Last Love as their inspiration, Hirschbiegel (Downfall, The Invasion) and screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys pursue a potentially intriguing idea: How hard would it be for a celebrity and an ordinary person to date? Such a scenario has been tackled in purely fictional films like Notting Hill and The American President, and Diana somewhat boldly tries to be a comparably lighthearted romantic comedy-drama in which a tabloid sensation and a shy Pakistani doctor engage in a fraught courtship that must remain hidden lest it be exposed by the ravenous paparazzi. (Like in a typically dopey rom-com, Diana is shown donning a wig and hiding her beloved in the backseat of her car as she drives past palace security.)

But the filmmakers’ slight treatment tends to infantilize rather than normalize their characters’ behavior. Andrews plays Hasnat as a romantic, quietly confident man, but his rapport with Watts never fully convinces. This is in part because Watts doesn’t have a strong grasp of Diana—or, more accurately, the film as a whole doesn’t. Depicted as alternately spoiled, smart, impetuous, loving and troubled, this onscreen Diana is a mess of contradictions that isn’t satisfyingly reconciled. Though the film is told from Diana’s vantage point, Hirschbiegel fails to crack that well-known exterior to give us an opinion on her inner world. It’s not a matter of electing for a more nuanced take that defies easy interpretation—Diana simply fumbles to get a sense of this woman, unable to articulate why she was such an adored, polarizing public figure.

Without a compelling perspective on its main character, Diana has to make do as a mediocre love story and a sympathetic highlight reel of the princess’s attempts to remake her image after her separation from Charles. Normally, Watts is capable of such fire and vulnerability, but as Diana she’s glassy—which might work if the movie were meant to be more of a critique of Diana’s dehumanization at the hands of a rapacious press. But because Diana only lightly touches on different themes without ever leaving any fingerprints, Diana comes across as frustratingly distant. We hear about her anxiety of always feeling abandoned and rejected, but it doesn’t connect emotionally with what we see—both the love story and her personal demons have a tranquil, inconsequential air to them.

What’s strange about all this is that it’s not as if Diana’s central themes have lost their relevance 16 years after her death. Celebrity culture, the debate over the efficacy of famous people’s attempts to speak out about political causes, our continued interest in the antiquated presence of the British royals: These issues are still with us, and Diana’s tragic death remains an open wound for many who loved her. (Like Hollywood stars who died young, such as James Dean, Diana has gained a certain iconic status because we never saw her grow old.) And yet, Diana blandly goes about the telling of its melancholy tale. There’s something to be said for a tasteful, muted film—but this movie is simply tame.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writer: Stephen Jeffreys
Starring: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Geraldine James, Charles Edwards, Juliet Stevenson
Release Date: Nov. 1, 2013

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