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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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