Who was Diana Spencer? “Diana,” a gooey true-romance comic book disguised as a historical drama, is a reminder that no one ever wanted an answer. No matter what we called her — HRH the Princess of Wales, Lady Di, humanitarian, harlot, breeder, victim — Spencer’s public persona was an outline everyone filled in according to their sentiments or cynicism. After her death, in a 1997 car crash, she was called “the people’s princess,” but she was first and foremost the public’s paper doll, a fact the global media instantly grasped as a selling point. That she might have been a human being was completely beside the point.
“Diana,” scripted by Stephen Jeffreys from Kate Snell’s 2000 novel “Diana — Her Last Love,” makes a few gestures toward that unhappy paradox, but mostly it uses its heroine as another paper doll, this one labeled “The Lonely Princess.” Taking place from 1995, when Diana (Naomi Watts) announces her separation from Prince Charles, to minutes before her death, two years later, it’s the story of her secret love affair with Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews of “The English Patient” and “Lost”), an elegant London heart surgeon who (according to the movie) was the only man to truly love her.
It’s a shallow but eternally appealing notion: the royal celebrity trapped by fame (and just in case you missed it, director Oliver Hirschbiegel shifts focus to the iron bars that slam behind Diana at Kensington Palace), the “Roman holiday” that lets her walk free among her people (Audrey Hepburn cut her hair; this movie’s princess dons a brunette wig), the love that can never be. Watts gives a performance that’s more complex than the movie needs. Her Diana is earnest, heart-sore, tempestuous, naïve, manipulative, and not terribly bright. (”I’m not sure one can actually make a hamburger,” she tells her lover during their first top-secret dinner date.)
The royal family is conspicuously absent here, with Charles a voice on the other end of the phone, Harry and Will glimpsed only in long shot, and no sign of queen or corgis. “Diana” is about a woman freed from one prison only to find herself in a larger one — that of extreme fame, its corridors jammed with paparazzi.
Hirschbiegel — whose lasting contribution to popular culture may well be that scene from 2004’s Hitler drama “Downfall,” still playing on YouTube with endless parody voice-overs — tries to work in ironies and artistic touches. The opening scenes of “Diana,” unmoored in time and space, reflect the heroine’s traumatized state, and the paparazzi sequences are often as terrifying as they should be. But the movie fights a losing battle against its screenplay, which traffics in the most simpleminded pieties of People magazine melodrama.
Hasnat to Diana: “If I marry you, I marry the whole world as well.” Diana to Hasnat: “You say you love me, but there are 5 million people on the planet who can say that.” Heart transplant pioneer Christian Barnaard to Diana: “Please, call me Christian.” Moviegoer to self: “I think I left a burner on at home.”
“Diana” represents a soggy nadir in the recent trend of Not Dead Yet drama — the “Social Network”s and “Fifth Element”s and, above all, 2006’s “The Queen,” to which this seems a hapless answer film. It might work if we could forget these characters had anything to do with actual people and if we could maybe bring Joan Crawford back from the grave to smash the stemware in a hissy fit. Perhaps then we’d buy the film’s ridiculous notion that Diana’s affair with playboy Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar) was engineered by her solely to make Khan jealous, to the point of hiring a paparazzo to get the money shots on Fayed’s yacht.
But Hirschbiegel and Watts don’t have the nerve for camp. Even a scene of a rejected Diana back at Kensington, forlornly playing Bach at her piano while mascara streams down her face, is played gloomily straight.
Not surprisingly, “Diana” has taken a beating in the British press, and the real Dr. Khan has issued a statement that, based on his viewing of the trailer, the movie is a “betrayal” of his and Diana’s relationship. Silly man -- he thinks the public wants to know what really happened. But fairy tales and sob stories sell better, and they always will.
Ty Burr can be reached at Ty.Burr@Globe.com.