That she died in a car chase instigated by her own celebrity has probably helped keep Diana, Princess of Wales, the iconic figure she is. That there'd finally be a movie about her life is more than predictable. But what is a shock about "Diana" -- directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Naomi Watts as the royal outcast/global philanthropist -- is that the most scrutinized woman in the world still has the power to surprise, 16 years after her death.
"Diana," which opens here Friday, may be in for a bumpy ride: Its recent release in the U.K. was met with something like gape-mouthed astonishment, and not the good kind.
But there shouldn't be any wonder that the movie was made: When she died in 1997, Diana was the most famous woman in the world, the royal-watcher's favorite victim, and the kind of princess who walked across minefields both literal and figurative. What most people never knew -- at least those who haven't read the Kate Snell biography on which "Diana" is based -- was that, according to the book, she'd been embroiled in a love affair that had more than a passing resemblance to a fairy tale.
"It's an old-fashioned, universal love story about a princess, the most famous woman in the world, falling in love with a common man," Hirschbiegel said. "I couldn't believe what I was reading. I had no idea about this story, and the more I did my research on Diana, she was everything I didn't know about."
Most viewers will be equally dumbfounded. From the late summer of 1995 until June of '97 (just weeks before her death), Diana Spencer was romantically involved with the London-based, Pakistani-born heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan, according to the book. Unlike her very public fling with Dodi Fayed, who died alongside her in the car, the Khan affair was utterly private, and seems to have been the genuine article. As portrayed in the film, Diana's relationship with Fayed was little more than a ploy to win her doctor back.
"A lot was happening in those two years," said Hirschbiegel, whose best known previous film "Downfall," also dealt with the last days of a world figure -- Adolf Hitler, whose furious portrayal by actor Bruno Ganz has been lampooned for years, up and down the Internet. Doing "Diana" was certainly more pleasant, Hirschbiegel has said, as was the subject. "She was using her fame to do good," he said. "She invented that. And all that has been sort of forgotten."
Playing Diana is the Oscar-nominated Watts ("The Impossible," "21 Grams") who turned the role down several times before accepting. In an interview, she cited the obvious reasons for not doing the part -- her non-resemblance to Diana, the walk, the voice ...
"But what I was afraid of were the reasons to do it," she said. "I was afraid to take on the most famous woman of our times; everyone feels they know her. I was afraid of that taking possession of the character." In the end, she said, she decided she'd "walk through fear rather than be trumped by it."
It was the voice she was most worried about. "Even though I'm British, I left when I was 14, making her voice very different from mine," Watts said. "It was hard: I move my face mostly on the right; she seemed to move hers on the left." There's also a prosthetic nose in the way, a distraction for everyone.
But Watts does have the walk. And the dresses: The filmmakers went to great lengths to recreate Diana's iconic attire, even hiring some of the same designers. Jacques Azagury, one of Diana's friends and favorite dress makers, was given the task of producing replicas of some of her most memorable frocks.
THE DOCTOR'S NOT IN
They did not, apparently, involve Khan in the production, or get his blessing. "I haven't spoken to anyone involved in that movie," Khan told the Daily Mail of London. "I have never given my approval for it." He says that the filmmakers attempted to contact him a number of times, but he rebuffed their efforts.
But Hirschbiegel, whose other films include "Five Minutes of Heaven," the Irish Republican Army drama starring James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson, has seemed happy about the outcome. "I've always wanted to do a love story," he said, "one that's not a romantic comedy.
"What fascinated me about her as a character," he said of Diana, "is that she was like one of these old-fashioned movie stars, like Marlene Dietrich or Lauren Bacall, very strong, opinionated women of the type we don't really have on screen anymore."
"What do you mean?" Watts asked accusingly.
"Well this is the only one," he said, indicating his actress. "But Diana is a fascinating character. She just happened to be the Princess of Wales."