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NAOMI Watts saw it com­ing. It’s why she baulked twice at play­ing the char­ac­ter. Sub­se­quently, she has had to de­fend this role more than any other in her ac­claimed ca­reer. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one feels Diana be­longs to them,’’ she says.

The fer­vent re­ac­tion in Bri­tain to her por­trayal of the princess of Wales is ‘‘ ex­actly as I ex­pected thus far’’, she says.

The film de­pict­ing the fi­nal two years of the much loved princess’s life, Diana, copped a pan­ning from the Bri­tish press when it pre­miered there this month.

The press that col­luded with the Peo­ple’s Princess would brook no ill of her; cer­tainly not in a film di­rected by a Ger­man, Oliver Hirsch­biegel, best known for Down­fall.

And Watts, 44, who was born in Eng­land but spent some of her for­ma­tive years in Aus­tralia, has had to re­in­force her Bri­tish up­bring­ing to the bay­ing me­dia. ‘‘ I know!’’ she says, laugh­ing. ‘‘ How dare I take on play­ing the most iconic Bri­tish woman and I’m not prop­erly Bri­tish. Oh god!’’

It re­mains to be seen whether the au­di­ence will be as damn­ing. Prob­a­bly not. The film hits its marks in re-cre­at­ing the un­known chap­ter of Diana’s life but doesn’t quite suc­ceed in tone. Watts ap­pre­ci­ates any apprehension on the part of the au­di­ence.

‘‘ She em­bod­ied so much and they feel be­cause she was ab­so­lutely, cat­e­gor­i­cally the most fa­mous woman of all time they feel they know her,’’ the ac­tress says. ‘‘ And so to take pos­ses­sion of her and make your own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of her, you’re not al­lowed to do that.’’

That be­came clear in the first re­views from Lon­don. Al­most un­be­liev­ably, some re­views screamed Watts didn’t look like Diana. Of course, the same crit­i­cism is not be­ing made of another Aus­tralian’s por­trayal of a much-loved Brit — Chris Hemsworth’s role as For­mula One driver James Hunt in the com­ing film Rush.

Watts says she’s ‘‘ not in­ter­ested in mimicry’’ al­though the at­ten­tion she paid to the princess’s man­ner­isms and de­meanour is deliberate and minute. We should ex­pect noth­ing less from an ac­tress in de­mand from so many of the world’s best di­rec­tors and clearly among the best of her gen­er­a­tion.

Hirsch­biegel, like Peter Jack­son, Clint East­wood, Michael Haneke, David Cro­nen­berg, David Lynch and so many other di­rec­tors be­fore him, ap­pre­ci­ates the in­dus­try she brings to her per­for­mances. But he couldn’t con­vince Watts to bring that in­dus­try to a role that would be­come a tar­get.

Af­ter Down­fall, his ac­claimed, and widely par­o­died, docu­d­rama about the last days of the Nazi regime, the di­rec­tor failed with the thriller The Invasion star­ring Ni­cole Kid­man and Daniel Craig be­fore mak­ing the more con­vinc­ing Ir­ish Trou­bles drama Five Min­utes of Heaven.

But it wasn’t the di­rec­tor at is­sue for Watts, it was his sub­ject. ‘‘ I was ob­vi­ously very afraid of tak­ing it on for so many rea­sons,’’ she says. It was, and con­tin­ues to be, a chal­leng­ing task be­cause of the in­trigue sur­round­ing Diana’s life to this day.

‘‘ It’s hard enough tak­ing on the chal­lenge and ex­e­cut­ing things like the voice and the walk and the look,’’ Watts adds. ‘‘ That’s very, very hard and daunt­ing, the trans­for­ma­tion. But then be­cause you know peo­ple will ask you why did you do this and what are you try­ing to say, you’re forced into de­fend­ing it, rather than hop­ing peo­ple will just en­joy it.

‘‘ I’m back to square one ba­si­cally,’’ she says, sigh­ing. ‘‘ It’s very hard to sell my work


any­way but much more dif­fi­cult in this way.’’

Diana sells it­self, though. It is nei­ther as bad as the hys­ter­i­cal Bri­tish re­views would sug­gest nor as stun­ning as we may have ex­pected given the talk of awards.

It fits Watts well though, emo­tion­ally if not phys­i­cally. She found the char­ac­ter study fas­ci­nat­ing, ‘‘ like all of the women I’m in­ter­ested in play­ing, full of con­tra­dic­tions, full of strengths, and in this case she has a huge amount of com­pas­sion and em­pa­thy’’.

Diana Spencer was thrust into an ex­tra­or­di­nary life and ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions, much like many of Watts’s screen char­ac­ters. Af­ter years of un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated toil, Watts popped in David Lynch’s enig­matic 2001 film Mul­hol­land Drive.

Since then, she has delved into some dark and in­ter­est­ing places. She could have be­come the dull blonde hero­ine; in­stead she be­came a heart-wrench­ing lead­ing woman. Even when she was the blonde hero­ine in her most con­ven­tional Hol­ly­wood role, as Ann Dar­row in Jack­son’s King Kong re­make, she made an emo­tional con­nec­tion with a com­puter-gen­er­ated ape.

Diana, de­spite her omnipresence, is another com­pli­cated char­ac­ter. ‘‘ I’m al­ways in­ter­ested in char­ac­ters of this type,’’ Watts com­ments.

Diana isn’t a windy catch-all biopic. Nor is it a neg­a­tive por­trayal of the princess of Wales. The film fo­cuses on her fi­nal love af­fair with Lon­don heart sur­geon Has­nat Khan, played subtly by Naveen An­drews. Prince Charles does not ap­pear in the film; their two sons are barely seen.

It is based on Kate Snell’s 2001 book Diana: Her Last Love and, con­se­quently, doesn’t in­dulge in the worst rev­e­la­tions to emerge from her life and the trou­bled fi­nal years of her mar­riage to Charles: the self-harm, scream­ing fits and ma­nip­u­la­tion.

The film re-cre­ates sharply her no­to­ri­ous tell-al­most-all in­ter­view with jour­nal­ist Martin Bashir in which she re­vealed, ‘‘ Well, there were three of us in this mar­riage, so it was a bit crowded.’’ And it has fun re­count-

ing her means of ma­nip­u­lat­ing the me­dia.

But be­yond some cringe­wor­thy di­a­logue — to be fair, di­a­logue that is no less im­plau­si­ble than Charles’s il­le­gally recorded phone sex with Camilla — the film’s harsh­est im­pli­ca­tion is that Diana started to date Dodi Fayed to make Khan jeal­ous.

This, and many of the film’s rev­e­la­tions of the deep ro­mance be­tween Diana and Has­nat, have been in­de­pen­dently cor­rob­o­rated re­cently by an ex­ten­sive cover story in Van­ity Fair mag­a­zine. That piece quotes a friend of Diana say­ing she told her the sum­mer she died: ‘‘ Every­body sells me out. Has­nat is the one per­son who will never sell me out.’’

And he hasn’t sold her out, crit­i­cis­ing the film re­cently, sight un­seen. The film drama­tises their re­la­tion­ship, which was shielded from the pub­lic eye and con­se­quently re­mained, un­til now, the only un­ex­plored as­pect of the most pub­lic of lives.

‘‘ Be­cause we are so sat­u­rated in in­for­ma­tion there’s noth­ing new learned, and, cer­tainly I can speak for my­self, the rea­son I was able to wrap my head around it was that it was a story that was com­pletely un­known to me,’’ Watts says.

Watts knew of the af­fair but not its de­tail. And it was fas­ci­nat­ing, par­tic­u­larly in light of the mourn­ful mythmaking by Dodi’s fa­ther Mo­hamed al-Fayed. He pro­claimed not only that his son was the love of Diana’s life but her death was a con­spir­acy to kill the prospect of her mar­ry­ing a Mus­lim (a wild no­tion dis­missed in the 2004-08 in­quest into Diana’s death).

Watts is keen not to dis­miss the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the Dodi ro­mance, but adds of Khan: ‘‘ This one was the real thing. And it felt, be­cause it was so cov­ered up, worth ex­plor­ing.’’

The ex­plo­ration re­quired Watts to con­vince her­self of the ro­mance’s ve­rac­ity. She ap­proached peo­ple who knew Diana and did her own re­search.

‘‘ It’s hard to gauge what was real and what wasn’t be­cause a lot of the time the sto­ries were so con­flict­ing, so that’s why I did reach out to peo­ple who knew her,’’ Watts says. ‘‘ And with­out re­veal­ing who they were or are, they seemed to en­dorse what was be­ing said by Kate Snell.’’

And some of the re­la­tion­ship is based on clear fact. For in­stance, Khan spoke to the in­quest into Diana’s death via a state­ment to the 2004 po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Nev­er­the­less, the di­a­logue be­tween Diana and Khan can only be imag­ined and will be for­ever open to ridicule for be­ing so. Pro­ducer Robert Bern­stein said the film­mak­ers ap­proached the re­la­tion­ship sen­si­tively af­ter dis­cus­sions with Khan and his fam­ily. He de­scribed it as a ‘‘ very as­pi­ra­tional, sym­pa­thetic por­trait’’ of a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship. It was ‘‘ not voyeuris­tic’’.

Af­ter con­vinc­ing her­self of the tale, and the bona fides and in­tent of the film’s pro­duc­tion team, Watts tack­led the ob­ser­va­tion of Diana and her trans­for­ma­tion.

Ini­tially, Watts no­ticed Diana used the left side of her face. That was prob­lem­atic, she says, laugh­ing. ‘‘ I tend to chew on my right side, smirk on my right side, I part my hair on my right side.

‘‘ That’s the side of my face that works more than the other side. I can see as a re­sult I have a lot more lines on that side of my face!’’

Watts thought it would be too hard to al­ter that for her por­trayal, think­ing she’d look like she had a stroke. Or that she was just be­ing ex­ces­sive.

Watts’s di­alect coach told her to go for it, how­ever, par­tic­u­larly be­cause Diana’s hair part and the way she peeked from un­der­neath her hair were not only es­sen­tial facets of her be­hav­iour, but they would en­sure her face, as it were, would fol­low her eye. Watts chewed tooth­picks to paral­yse the other side of her face.

She knew she had to nail the re-cre­ation of the in­ter­view with Bashir be­cause those im­ages of the wounded yet be­guil­ing jilted princess, with her mourn­ful eyes peek­ing from a fall­ing face, re­mained in our minds.

‘‘ It’s the time she spoke most can­didly and peo­ple re­mem­bered that so I wanted to get that most ac­cu­rately and as close to her as pos­si­ble,’’ Watts says.

‘‘ I’m not in­ter­ested in mimicry but in the case of that in­ter­view and one or two other speeches I re­ally did want to get it as ex­act as pos­si­ble. But the rest of the time, in Kens­ing­ton Palace and when she’s with [Khan], I wanted to do my own thing.’’

Of course, once the Bashir in­ter­view was in her head, that Diana be­came her tem­plate, par­tic­u­larly the breath­i­ness of her voice. Watts de­scribes it stu­diously as hav­ing ‘‘ a posh­ness but the mod­ernised ver­sion of posh, which was putting the breath in and tak­ing out the stiff up­per lip’’.

The tech­ni­cal acu­ity seems ill-fit­ting com­ing from Watts, who is bet­ter known for her emo­tional depth. On screen at least, she’s a heart ac­tor, not a head ac­tor.

Few ac­tresses go fur­ther than she does; and just when we thought she had reached her soul­ful pit in films such as Funny Games and 21 Grams, it was al­most dis­tress­ing to see what she put her­self through in the heart-wrench­ing re-cre­ation of the 2004 In­dian Ocean tsunami, The Im­pos­si­ble, for which she earned her sec­ond Academy Award nom­i­na­tion last year.

Sur­prise at her me­thod­i­cal re­search for Diana sells her short, or merely shows how con­vinc­ing a dra­matic ac­tress she is.

That re­search and ob­ses­sion with this char­ac­ter led her to some odd thoughts though, one of which the Brits seized on early as another ex­am­ple of the film’s folly. Diana spoke to Naomi.

At least Watts dreamed of Diana and mis­tak­enly told her di­rec­tor. Hirsch­biegel par­layed it in a press jun­ket into a bad Chi­nese whis­per wherein Diana spoke to Watts and granted her per­mis­sion to make the film. She kicked Hirsch­biegel un­der the ta­ble as soon as he said it.

Watts still cringes about the in­ci­dent. ‘‘ If you can do some trou­bleshoot­ing on that, I’d love it,’’ she says with a laugh. ‘‘ Of course a dream, when they’re told, never sounds right and I re­gret hav­ing men­tioned it,’’ she adds.

‘‘ Ba­si­cally it was a case of when you be­come ob­sessed with some­thing it plays out in your sub­con­scious and your dream life. Yes, it was a con­ver­sa­tion I had with her and it sounds com­pletely ab­surd — and I felt the ques­tion was there in my dreams but it wasn’t an­swered.’’

Diana opens na­tion­ally on Oc­to­ber 10.

Left, Naomi Watts as Diana; above, with Lau­rence Belcher and Harry Hol­land as Wil­liam and Harry; and with Naveen An­drews as Has­nat Khan; be­low left, Diana in 1995

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