the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Deirdre Macken

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.

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