IT’S hard to know what upset the British critics so much about Diana, the movie. It may have been the revelation that the princess of Wales couldn’t make hamburgers, struggled with a pasta dish and didn’t know which British football team wore blue jerseys. Or maybe it was her attraction to a pudgy Pakistani surgeon?
‘‘ Atrocious and intrusive’’ was one comment. ‘‘ Car crash cinema’’ was another. ‘‘ What’s the point of Diana?’’ asked one critic. Most agreed the woman who was once married to the next in line to the throne had died a tragic death.
But it’s likelier that what has rankled the British about the movie is that the director has made a legend of our time into a story of a woman, a woman who at times seems banal. The outrage of critics (and the British ones have been more scathing than those elsewhere) suggests a crime has been committed and, in this case, it seems the crime is theft. Someone has stolen Britain’s story.
Who owns a story is a question that dogs literature, film, television series and even lore. It stretches back to ancient Aboriginal culture, where a tribe would never dream of telling another tribe’s story (and still don’t) and it’s as modern as Oliver Stone and his penchant for retelling US history with his own spin.
The question is mostly moral rather than legal and the answer is never easy. In many cases, the answer to the question is all about the vibe. We accept that people will write unauthorised biographies of famous people because celebrities gave away their lives a long time ago. We feel more uncomfortable about biographies of unknown people and our discomfort increases if it’s about an ordinary person with a tragic end and a family still alive (as the recent controversy over the SBS series Better Man showed).
The vibe gets more complicated when we’re dealing with iconic stories, stories that resonate with cultural poignancy. Every country has stories of people who have great moment for them, from Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley in the US to our own Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant. These people had made-forTV lives that became part of folklore, they became part of the country’s story and, as such, the stories belong to the group, they’re protected by the group and woe betide any Oliver Stone who dares to change the script.
In Australia, for instance, we loved Bruce Beresford’s film Breaker Morant, partly because it was such an apt story of Australians in history and partly because it was made by Australians when the local film industry was getting its voice. We were less entranced when Mick Jagger played Ned Kelly.
More recently, Steven Spielberg made a movie about Abe Lincoln, a biopic critics mostly summed up as ‘‘ definitive but tedious’’ but one that kept the country’s story intact. Americans were a little more nervous about Baz Luhrmann making The Great Gatsby but he managed to avoid fallout by sticking to the script and adding enough luxe to do America’s favourite millionaire justice.
The British have pushed the boundaries a little harder. The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, might have got into trouble if not for the deft treatment of HRH by a British director, writer and a star whom many mistake for Her Maj.
Less sensitive to the country’s sensibility was The Iron Lady. It might have been the fact the lead role was played by an American (Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar) or the fact the former prime minister was still alive at the time, but many critics were miffed. ‘‘ Chillingly insensitive’’, said one; ‘‘ biopic drag queen’’, said another.
In many ways Diana takes a similar route to The Iron Lady. They are both films about British legends that focus on their personal lives, lives that seem pedestrian when reduced to the haunted nights of dementia or evenings spent on the couch watching EastEnders.
Diana is held in British minds as the glamorous young woman who did about as well as they did at O-levels yet took on the British royalty. They didn’t need to know she couldn’t make hamburgers. They didn’t want to imagine she could have been a stalker. The film mars memories of her, steals some of her mystique and almost ruins a good legend.
You might say the film captures the love affair but misses on the hearts and minds. It gets the woman but misses the history. But, then history is not written by the victors, it’s written by the Oliver Stones of the world.