Naomi Watts in <i>Diana</i>
Naomi Watts in Diana

Last week, we got the most extensive look yet at Pablo Larraín and Stephen Knight’s upcoming Princess Diana biopic via the first official teaser trailer for Spencer. Set in 1991, the film stars Kristen Stewart as the Princess of Wales, and seems to be an unintentionally perfect follow-up to the most recent season of The Crown, which ended with Emma Corrin’s Diana considering leaving Prince Charles whilst celebrating Christmas with the extended royal family. Spencer, meanwhile, reportedly takes place during the Christmas holidays, and there’s a shot in the teaser of the Windsors gathering for a family photo that’s strikingly similar to the devastating final scene in The Crown’s fourth season.

How Stewart’s portrayal will stack up against Corrin’s remains to be seen — though Corrin has set the bar pretty high. One thing is certain though: Stewart has taken on a dicey job playing a figure like Diana. Obviously, neither actress is the first to play the princess, and Spencer isn’t even the first big budget, awards-bait-y film to attempt to shed light on her private turmoil. Eight years ago, Naomi Watts attempted something similar in director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana, and the result was disastrous. The film was pretty much universally panned, with some critics comparing it to a half-hearted Lifetime movie.

“There’s a germ of a smart biopic in Diana,” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote for The AV Club at the time. “The problem is that it’s tucked away behind a clunky structure and even clunkier dialogue.” The Associated Press, meanwhile, suggested that, while not particularly good, the film had the potential to become something of a guilty pleasure for royal obsessives.

With Diana-mania ramping up recently thanks to Corrin, Spencer and Elizabeth Debicki’s role in The Crown’s highly anticipated fifth season, this seemed like a good time to give Watts’ 2013 performance another chance. I mean, sign me up for a royal guilty pleasure any day.

Of course, rule number one of watching a movie like this — prestigious Oscar-bait gone wrong; hubris brought low — is you really ought to be drunk to do so. Diana is a white wine kind of film — the kind of Chardonnay your mom buys at the supermarket, to be precise. Hell, put some ice cubes in it! And you’ll want to down a few glasses ahead of time to provoke the proper weepy sentimentality the film is aiming for. Sadly, I failed to heed my own advice in this matter and watched Diana completely sober on a workday. Do as I say, friends, not as I have done.

After a brief, foreboding sequence in which we see Diana on what we know to be the final night of her life, the film flashes back to 1995. She and Charles are separated, and she’s lonely and isolated at Kensington Palace. We see Diana rehearsing her answers for her infamous interview with Martin Bashir, and actually, for my money — which is zero dollars since I did a free Sundance Now trial to watch this — Watts kinda nails the princess’ soft, clipped delivery of well-known lines like, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

This is all just table setting for the real story: Diana’s affair with heart surgeon Hasnat Kahn. Kahn is played by Naveen Andrews from Lost, but somehow leached of all the smoldering sex appeal he brought to his role on the ABC series. They meet and Diana gets all obsessed with him, suddenly realizing she’s super into surgery and hospitals and jazz because that’s what Hasnat is into. (Literally she buys a copy of Grey’s Anatomy, and then when Hasnat takes her on a tour of the hospital and shows her the on-call rooms, I thought of the on-call rooms in the show Grey’s Anatomy and wondered whether they were going to hook up in there. But they didn’t, and that’s a decent indication of how it feels to watch this movie.)

Naomi Watts and Naveen Andrews in <i>Diana</i>
Naomi Watts and Naveen Andrews in Diana

Actually, I feel like that’s a thing I think I remember from reading Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles — how she would get obsessed with things because her boyfriends were? This movie, though, is not based on The Diana Chronicles, but a different book: Kate Snell’s Diana: Her Last Love. So, Diana does that usually very sensible biopic thing of narrowing the focus on a single aspect of a famous person’s life rather than trying to cram in the whole cradle-to-grave arch of a life. Ultimately, it’s the story of a doomed relationship which, despite being labeled one of Diana’s great loves, feels somehow inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Hirschbiegel seems to be striving for intimacy, showing us how happy and normal Diana is able to feel with the down-to-earth, intensely private doctor. The problem is that Kahn isn’t a particularly compelling character, and normality isn’t what we want from Diana’s story. Even their fights over Diana’s press coverage, her manipulation of the media and the way it almost always backfires on her — none of that ever really manages to ignite the film, which meanders through the fallout of the Bashir interview, yadda-yaddas the Wales’ actual divorce, and tacks on Diana’s affair with Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar) positing it as an attempt to make Kahn jealous. It seems like it’s vaguely conjecturing that if Diana and Hasnat could have just worked things out, maybe she wouldn’t have died. Which…yikes!

There’s probably a point, somewhere toward the end of this movie, when, if you’ve been steadily, conscientiously drinking, you’ll finally be swept away on a tide of Chardonnay and schmaltz and shed some sloppy tears over poor Diana. I really think that’s the best you can hope to get out of this film; clutching an empty wine bottle while reaching, Bridget Jones style, for a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk as tears stream down your face. I mean, I’ve had worse movie-watching experiences.

Naomi Watts in <i>Diana</i>
Naomi Watts in Diana

In a lot of ways, Diana feels like a companion piece to Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan’s The Queen — or maybe more like a response. While The Queen gave us a glimpse of the Windsors in the days after Diana’s death, Diana shows us the princess absent the royal family. But in doing so it removes Diana from the dynastic soap opera, the arcane intrigue that makes the royal family so enthralling, despite their political impotence. In Frears and Morgan’s film, we understand the stakes involved in the Queen’s resistance to participating in the public spectacle of mourning Diana’s death. She’s at an existential crossroads and her choices will impact not only her sense of self and her family’s future, but the future of a nation.

Diana, on the other hand, humanizes the princess in such a way as to render her…boring. She’s just a girl standing in front of a heart surgeon asking him to love her. But the chemistry isn’t there; the leading man is a snooze; the romance is leaden. It just doesn’t work.

Unless maybe you’ve had the better part of a bottle of Chardonnay?

thoughts?