Review: Naomi Watts is extraordinary in the flawed 'Diana'

While Diana, Princess of Wales, was living life as the World's Most Famous Woman, happiness was an elusive pursuit: a nagging struggle between a thirst for privacy and a need for affirming public recognition. That the new film "Diana," based on Kate Snell's book about Diana's two-year secret romance with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, has met with contemptuous reception in Britain only shows that the late royal belongs more to the people she touched and inspired than any one film could hope to dramatize.

While "Diana" is hardly a fully effective film, it admirably tries to understand a lonely public figure made briefly, energetically whole through a nourished intimacy. In that context, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel — whose "Downfall" benefited from Bruno Ganz's last-days portraiture of Hitler — is fortunate that Naomi Watts is under that frosted blond helmet and working those searching, melancholy eyes.

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When Hirschbiegel drops his consciously arty touches and focuses on Watts, the actress doesn't take long to establish Diana's tightening solitude — the public smile for adoring throngs and car-banging paparazzi that settles into a grim, blank stare as her driver speeds away. And in the bloom of flirtation and desire after meeting the kind-eyed, coolly arrogant but playful Khan, rendered sharply by Naveen Andrews, Watts becomes a sensitively awkward romantic comedy heroine (even if the direction in these scenes is simply awkward).

When she sports a brunet wig or rides in car trunks to elude the press, she's even a giddy spy in the house of love. Then when the going gets tough — the prideful, private Khan bristling at her spotlighted existence, while she struggles to find a workable middle ground — Watts segues perfectly into the exquisitely agonized Diana, so close to emotional fulfillment yet so despairingly far.

Where the glass slipper strains to fit in "Diana" comes from the stuff that sinks a lot of biopics: clichéd dialogue (in this case, from Stephen Jeffreys) and clunky adherence to a timeline. But while "Diana" may not be the fleet-of-foot and smartly touching exploration of a beleaguered leader that was "The Queen," it's also not the dippy historical vaudeville that was "The Iron Lady." Flawed yet intimate, "Diana" respects its subject's hopes, strengths, weaknesses and legacy and, in the extraordinary Watts, boasts a formidably empathetic advocate.



Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Playing: Arclight Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Broadway 4, Santa Monica; Regal Westpark 8, Irvine


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