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Hannah and Diana

Two films in three days, both about real controversial but remarkable 20th century women whose actions in the media caused them strife.

But these women have little else in common. The greatest difference is my relationship with them. Hannah Arendt was known to me as a university seminar name, a face on my women philosophers display in a bookshop that I made when I ran that section. I’d forgotten that face so I do not know (I am going to peek shortly) if Barbara Sukowa who played Hannah in the film resembled the real Hannah. She was not yet real to me.

And there was the other great difference – I do not know Hannah’s story so I could take the film as it came. I noted, despite the German hand in both films, the English language biopic flavour, and it wasn’t a welcome observation. I felt Hannah Arendt tried too hard to taunt and attract an American audience with clichéd quips about the nation that annoy me as much as stiff upper lips and tea drinking. It is in German and English, which may encourage non subtitle watchers to get over that barrier.

Despite the labouredness of the brash ignorant Americans, I very much enjoyed this film. I liked it best for putting philosophy into a drama without making it clunky – an art to learn. It’s relevant to a paper I am preparing where I’ll reference Hannah’s thoughts about how evil can only be done with the cooperation, or at least non resistance of good people – a statement she made about her fellow Jews and the holocaust which caused an outrage.

The Diana film also had a quote along similar lines: that evil can only happen when good people stand by and do nothing. But the contexts are different and I could go into a discourse about whether evil is absolute or a perspective, and whether military intervention is ever justified. I’ll save most of that for elsewhere, but just to remark here that it’s possible for the perpetrators of evil to believe they are following the honour code of duty and have therefore done nothing wrong, as Hannah thought of Nazi leader Eichmann. His banality or not is not something I’ll discuss here. But personality (or its lack) does bring me back to what I’d like to say on both films.

Hannah’s personality is a strong one, though the critique of her being arrogant and unfeeling is fired at her in the film. Yet she is seen as sympathetic and charismatic and caring to her friends and devoted to her husband. But Naomi Watt’s Diana seems to lack that personality, and unlike Hannah, I know Diana well.

Well, what I mean of course, is that I know lots about her. I am one of the many who admired her but didn’t meet her and my opinions are coming from third hand information – something abhorrent to me as a historian. The books about Diana that you might think methodologically are most reliable are the most dubious – those written by former ‘special friends’. I think that if one is really close to a famous person, that you protect and respect their confidences. I am very likely to return one source to the charity shop from whence it came, for the shallow tabloid mentality at its worst, aggrandising the author whilst decrying other special friends. Whenever you read, “Source close to…. says”, you know that they’re not real friends – or won’t remain so.

So I wonder where this new Diana film gains its source, as her lover Hasnat Khan was a private man and this was a mostly secret affair, so how do we know what happened between them? My dubious book, by a special healer friend,  does corroborate most of the film’s story.

Unlike other reviewers, I won’t make personal remarks on an actor’s ability or looks or predict where their career will go because of a performance. But I will say that I don’t think Naomi Watts has captured Diana. I’m half annoyed at actor of another nationality depicting our English Rose. I excused the Aussie in Elizabeth, my favourite film, because Cate Blanchett was magnificent. But Naomi did not convey the presence that I suspect Diana must have had, which went beyond face touching and hand holding. The Mail – my least favourite newspaper – showed a contrasting picture of Naomi doing the Bashir Panorama interview and the real Diana. French and Saunder’s makeup department were more accurate than this in their many take offs. Diana’s trademark immaculately thick swept hair was part of the glamour that earned Diana her celebrity status. Although Naomi says her role was not mimicry but interpretation, her performance was not enough of either, and she hasn’t got the twinkling warmth or downcast eyes right.

I also did not warm to Hasnat Khan’s portrayal. I am aware that he is alive, and can be hurt by comments, and by a stranger who does not know the real person. But I will say that the arrogance of a high ranking surgeon who chain smokes but assumes his right as doctor to lecture patients on health, who constantly speaks of ‘my work’ like a scratched disk, who freaks about publicity though he encounters so little compared to Diana and her other lovers… I could break off to do a rant on experiences of allopathic doctors who assume that their intrusive, dangerous methods are the only right ones, and that when Hasnat asks for permission to do another operation, the “of course” of the next of kin is assumed, as so often is the case.

Perhaps the real Hasnat is (now) very different – I hope so. I do know he experimented on sheep and killed them, which ought to be treated as a crime. I did not feel, as Diana in the film says, that he performs with focus and love, or that there was something remarkable about him when we first see him. But as we often don’t hear the internal monologue of characters in film, sometimes it’s very hard to get that sense of an intense emotion and reaction. This wasn’t a physically charged love at first sight but something else that we only learn about too long after to fully convince us of their love. Naveen Andrews does not resemble Hasnat and implied to me that standard good looks is the only type of face that Diana would have fallen for. Perhaps Hasnat’s real qualities are somewhat different. I liked the little he is on record for saying, and his discretion could teach much to certain butlers and therapists.

We’re not allowed to know Dodi – is that for fear of upsetting his father, or is the film saying that this was a playboy ruse to amuse Diana and to taunt Hasnat for breaking up with her? It’s not set up as a story of 2 lovers, but of one love and mistaken attention given to the wrong man at the end of her life. My sympathies were with Diana for ending it with this Hasnat who put his family and his work first and seemed not to really understand who Diana was, who had an angry temper, and who I was happy to see her let go of.

I felt both films were respectful and sympathetic to their titular heroines and those close to them, and aimed at a wide audience. After assembling my own view, I found out that Diana has come under criticism. I’d like to highlight the paucity of the Independent review, whose opening slag-off uses inaccurate similes such as “as flat and wet as Norfolk” (it undulates and it’s less wet than the West of Britain). The Independent review gropes for other comparisons, supposedly witty, acerbic and comic, but gives little substance to the review nor engages with the film. His review was not the only one that’s true of.

I enjoyed Diana, which started off artily but became one of the British stable of crowd pleasing biopics. But then I didn’t like The King’s Speech or The Queen for just that reason.

As a story, Diana arcs and bookmarks well with the intrusive cameras of that Parisian hotel and sessions with a healer (not the book writing one) where Diana has transformed her recurring dream from falling into one of flying; yet I didn’t feel this Diana had made the metamorphosis that the real one seemed to. The final spoken words reflect a romantic poem already referenced in the film, implying a posthumous recognition of Hasnat and Diana’s love. And the final words, a title card, remind us of the best of Diana’s charity work achievements, whilst tying up Hasnat’s life simply and without judgement, implying his good work also continues (unless you’re a sheep).

The film was too focussed on Hasnat’s relationship and eerily quiet about others, and portrayed Paul Burrell in the same mould as his predecessor. It’s made me think of Diana again, but I’m come away with a sense of disappointment. But it did push her landmine victories, and that rightly is something to leave us with as an enduring memory.

And as for Hannah Arendt – I chose to watch this two more times, and enjoyed it more, whilst being less annoyed. This is profound, quality film making, a long lasting love story against public outrage with characters not made to look supposedly more glamorous in film. I have not had further thoughts or inclination towards Diana the movie.

Hannah Arendt screened at the Cambridge Film Festival and was released in the UK in October 2013. Diana was released  in the UK at the end of September.

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Princess Dianas

When I changed my viewing and research from the British Royals to Wonder Woman, I was expecting a complete change. But Wonder Woman is also a Princess Diana, and politics as well as changing roles for women are key to both subjects.

Although one is blonde, one is dark; one is real, one is fiction; one is immortal, one died young, these women do have certain qualities in common:



immediate and genuine rapport

beauty – from within as much as pleasantly aligned features –  but not an object


tall – about 6ft (though Lynda Carter needed 3 inch heels to be that height)

national representative

an outsider

One was an English born aristocrat who became the wife and mother of heirs to the throne of the same country, and one was born on a secret island and took on America as her adopted country. But both had to get to learn the ways of a new world.

But Diana, Princess of Wales was more complicated and with conflicting qualities. Even those who were fond of her don’t deny a darker side. She said that her own suffering enabled and fuelled her to reach out to others.

In the TV series, Diana Prince has no emotional breakdowns and her problems do not seem very menacing or last long; but contractions have existed in all manifestations of Wonder Woman since her invention 70 years ago, and these are used more in comic story lines. But Lynda Carter said that she played Wonder Woman with a vulnerability, and that’s what made her  – and the other Diana – so appealing.

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Get us out from under, Wonder Woman

When I switched my viewing and research from the British Royals to Wonder Woman, I was expecting a complete change. But Wonder Woman is also a Princess Diana, and I’ve found quite a few parallels, as I’ll explain in a future post…

The Wonder Woman Lynda Carter TV show might have cult status, but it isn’t something most people would expect to quote from literature and philosophy, or discourse on ethics and society, or teach us how to live.

Yet it does all those.

In season 1 (on which this is based), there are quotes from Socrates in ancient Greek; the behavioural psychologist, Pavlov; Dr Johnson on patriotism; economics, and scientific equations. It makes witty social critiques of bureaucracy whilst trying to address international relations. But most of all, it is a vehicle for feminism.

Wonder Woman was a war baby, created in 1941 by a controversial psychologist. William Moulton Marston (pen named Charles Moulton) wanted to right the gender balance amongst superheroes. He believed that women are the future and are natural leaders. He believed – like proponents of single sex schooling – that women thrive when away from the influence of men, and are capable of equal or better physical and mental feats. He set his heroine as being part of a Greco-Roman myth, the mighty all female race, the Amazons, living in highly civilised peace. As he wrote, women’s roles and perceptions were altering, paving the way for feminism.

By 1975 when the TV pilot was aired, feminism had happened and was on its second wave. Theologian Mary Daly had publicly left the Catholic church because of its oppressive patriarchy to live on an all women island, and allegedly communicated with men only through an interpreter. The TV show seeks to sympathise with the sentiment but to step back from that extreme and show both men and women as good and bad, capable of living together harmoniously.

The slave-like bullet proof bracelets that Wonder Woman wears were created by Moulton to remind that if women let them, they are in servitude to men. The bracelets’ secret substance gave rise to the episode title The Feminum Mystique, refracting the famous Betty Friedan text. Hindus too have seen a feminine mystique, a force called Shakti. For Moulton, this is symbolised in Wonder Woman’s lasso which compels its captive to tell the truth. Much is made of the connection between this device and that Moulton partly invented the lie detector test, but this immoral and inaccurate contraption actually does an inverse task: it spots lies, not finds out truth. Moulton claims that all women have this power to disarm and bring out honesty through charm.

It seems, like Indian women, that there is a dichotomy and contradiction between the venerable female ultimate force and a sexualised submissive domesticity. Moulton said that women’s qualities are wrongly seen as weak, but he sees their attributes as including meekness and submission. In the 1970s TV series, women’s qualities are cited as strength and compassion. Wonder Woman is the first superhero to fight with love, not for just truth and justice. The theme tune lyrics reflect this, but also the ambivalence of the show: Wonder Woman fights for democracy, love and honesty; the world is ready for her peace and women’s lib message. But she does it in satin tights. She’s conventionally attractive and slim – beauty queen Lynda Carter dieted for the role. She wears very little, despite the dress conventions and climate of her adopted home. Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, managed to scale a ladder in heels and a floaty dress in Rear Window, but Princess Diana of the Amazons must swap her native diaphanous groin skimming dress for a cross between a circus costume and a gym suit to assume her role in the ultimate example of democracy.

But as both lead actress and male commentators in the Season 1 DVD extras say, actually Wonder Woman in the TV show doesn’t feel titillating or objectified. All superheroes have outlandish, skin tight and sometimes revealing costumes – the Hulk, Hawkman and He Man all basically just wear underpants. Lynda Carter’s tights are a step up from having the bare legs of the comic book. Her outfit becomes simply a uniform; and although beautiful, she is never ogled over by the men around her, but accepted as their equal, if not superior. There’s a purity around her that commands awe and adulation, but not objectification.

Lynda Carter often says that it’s sad that Wonder Woman never, like her, has love or children; and that therefore most of us have more than the Amazonian Ambassador. But but I like that an ultimate heroine is complete without these. It makes Wonder Woman an even better feminist icon because it says that reproduction and marriage are not defining aspects of womanhood – indeed, personhood. It is undermining for single non parents to believe they are lesser and missing something; but it is also unhealthy for anyone to think that we need these others to be whole, or that we are defined by our relationships. And Wonder Woman does find love, on many levels: each episode, she finds a new friend, animal and human, of all ages – and is clearly close to her mother and sister. (You’ll never see Shadowlands in the same light after seeing Debra Winger’s debut here!) Carter’s insistence on repeating this idea regarding motherhood and romance is disappointing, and if it is meant how it is taken here, undermines what she brings to the role.

I at first felt the weekly girl fights were also part of degrading Wonder Woman to arousing entertainment. That might be a by-product, but as the first season’s extras imply, it’s more about giving other women key active parts that show their importance in the story. It helps the gender portrayal balance of having female villains as well as a protagonist; and a show down fight between these is normal in the action genre. Often, Wonder Woman is able to reach out to wayward sisters, particularly in Episode 3 of season 1. An unappreciated, endangered Nazi leader is recruited for the Allied forces, ending in a touching moment of bonding.

Wonder Woman also ribs beauty contests (ironically played by a Miss America) and the shallowness that makes Major Steve Trevor unable to see beyond another kind of uniform past the disguise of his bespectacled efficient secretary, Yeoman Diana Prince. Unlike Clark Kent, Diana does not act particularly different to her vigilante counterpart, so the ruse of her secret identity is more about playing to expectations and prejudices.

There’s explicit statements on gender, just war causes, and animal rights. As outsider, Wonder Woman can comment as so many sci-fis do on the fallacies of Earth people. Passionately pro-American, she still opens her adopted country to critique. She delivers a Nazi war criminal alive for a fair trial, unlike recent events in the Middle East.

The show’s makers claim their groundbreaking series opened the way for other strong women roles in television, and that fans wrote in to tell how Wonder Woman had inspired them to try new careers that they thought impossible (though admittedly these were often government and military related).

The Wonder Woman television series  remains brilliantly entertaining, and its old special effects make it all the funnier – I especially love that invisible plane. It – and she – have rightly become an icon for many, regardless of sexuality, gender or country. My hope is that in all the fun, the serious messages and discourses are not lost on viewers, and like the lyrics, it will change our minds and change the world.


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