Thursday 21 September 2017

Diana: The latest in a long line

Sixteen years ago last month, Diana Spencer's Mercedes crashed at high speed into a concrete pillar in a Parisian underpass, killing her, her boyfriend Dodi El Fayed, and their driver Henri Paul. Ever since, speculation about that incident and Diana's colourful life has grown and grown, and Naomi Watts does a very passable impression of her in a new film that opened here yesterday.

Oliver Hirschbiegel's Diana deals with the last two years of the Princess of Wales's life, when her divorce from Prince Charles finally left her free to follow her heart and fall in love. The film dramatises Diana's romance with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, whom she once described as "Mr Wonderful", and her fateful rebound affair with Egyptian multi-millionaire Dodi Fayed.

This is not the first time Diana Spencer has been portrayed onscreen. She's appeared as a character in a number of made-for-TV movies, the most lurid being the somewhat speculative 2007 film The Murder of Princess Diana, which starred Nathalie Brocker as Lady Di and cooked up a pretty elaborate establishment conspiracy to explain her unfortunate death.

Hirschbeigel's film, however, is the first serious attempt to dramatise Diana's life, and Naomi Watts seems to have done her homework, interviewing many of Di's friends.

Watts had hoped the film wouldn't upset Princes William and Harry, but Diana does seem to have upset old Mr Wonderful. Hasnat Khan criticised the whole idea of making a movie about his romance with Diana as "completely wrong", and says he'll never watch it. Khan claimed the film's script was "based on hypotheses and gossip" and also described as a "complete lie" the producers' claims that the project had his tacit approval.

One can understand the good doctor's horror at his private life being turned into a big budget soap opera, but overall Diana is extremely sympathetic to its subjects, and forgiving of Lady Di's flaws. In fact, she comes off much better than British royals generally do in the movies, because over the years the Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts and Windsors have generally been portrayed as a thoroughly unpleasant bunch.

Take Henry VIII. Though cordially loathed in these parts, Henry Tudor was an intellectual, author, musician and athlete who broke with Rome, established the Church of England and bolstered the fragile peace that had followed the War of the Roses. Yet in Hollywood films, the poor man is almost invariably portrayed as an oaf.

Charles Laughton was the actor who established the caricature of Henry as a corrupt and venal glutton in Alexander Korda's enjoyable 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII.

The great character actor gave a terrific performance playing the monarch in his later years, when he'd lost his looks and gained so much weight that courtiers took to padding out their clothes so as not to appear too annoyingly trim by comparison.

Laughton's Henry was a paranoid and mercurial ruler who ate like a pig and spent most of his time scheming to rid himself of his latest wife. He burped, had chicken grease on his face and was not exactly regal.

Robert Shaw played a young and much more dashing Henry VIII in Fred Zinnemann's fine 1966 historical drama A Man for All Seasons, but the portrait was not ultimately much more flattering. The blonde and virile king is not impressed when England's Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More resigns rather than agreeing to take an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry head of the Church of England.

Shaw's Henry swaggered about and threw his head back when he laughed, but had monstrous tantrums and threw all his toys out of the pram when he didn't get his way, which was probably not a million miles away from the truth.

Bette Davis did a real number on Henry's daughter Elizabeth in the iconic 1930s Hollywood melodrama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, portraying her as a bitter old crone hopelessly in love with the suave but indifferent Earl of Essex, played with predictable swagger by Errol Flynn.

Flora Robson offered a slightly more sympathetic version of Elizabeth in Fire Over England (1937), but her Queen was a sad old bird who had all the mirrors removed from her chambers after losing the love of her life to a younger woman.

Cate Blanchett gave the character context by playing the young, glamorous and not yet crowned Virgin Queen in Shekhar Kapur's very fine 1999 film Elizabeth.

The Stuarts are almost invariably depicted as ineffectual fops in British and American films, perhaps because of an Anglo-Saxon bias against the Catholic kings, but the Hanoverians have even more cause for complaint. King George III, for instance, would have been calling for the producers' heads if he'd ever caught sight of Nicholas Hytner's 1994 film The Madness of King George. In it, the king who lost Britain its American colonies was memorably portrayed by the late Nigel Hawthorne.

George's authority is somewhat undermined when he begins talking gibberish and charging around the palace in his underpants, and he's forced to undergo a horrific regimen of 'cures' for his supposed insanity.

At least George III had something the matter with him: his son and successor George IV has been portrayed as a certifiable idiot by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder, and as a spendthrift popinjay by Rupert Everett in The Madness of King George, but never as a worthy ruler.

Queen Victoria has had a mixed press overall. Traditionally, she tended to be portrayed as a grumpy frump dressed permanently from head to toe in black, a reference to her marathon mourning session for her beloved Prince Albert.

In the 1940s and 1950s, she became a stock character in British cinema, a frowning and frosty monarch from whom one struggled to win a smile. But in 1997, John Madden's hit film Mrs Brown moved beyond that clichéto present a portrait of a complex woman.

The film opened in 1863, two years after the death of Prince Albert, and was based on perhaps the most controversial incident in the Queen's life. Her husband's death has plunged Victoria (Judi Dench) into despair: she rarely appears in public and has become deeply unpopular as a consequence.

Her advisers send a robust Scottish servant called Mr Brown (Billy Connolly) to coax her back into public life, but they soon become so close that rumours begin circulating, and his lack of formality enrages everyone else at court. Judi Dench earned an Oscar nomination for her many-shaded performance.

Most portrayals of Victoria have focused on the later part of her 63-year reign, but The Young Victoria (2009) focused on the power struggle that took place just before the start of her reign, and starred Emily Blunt as a beautiful and rather idealised monarch.

The present monarch has rarely appeared as a major character in the movies, but in 2006 Stephen Frears's excellent film The Queen looked at Diana's saga from the point of view of the royal family. Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her extraordinarily convincing performance as Elizabeth II, whose implacable devotion to duty and protocol become her worst enemies in the aftermath of Diana's death.

Her majesty must have had mixed feelings about that film, but was apparently much more pleased with Tom Hooper's The King's Speech (2010), which celebrated the quiet heroism of her speech-impaired father, George VI.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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