Will they show the death photo? A week after that question dominated U.S. news in the wake of the Osama bin Laden killing, all of Cannes — or, rather, many in the British press reporting on the film festival — was breathlessly anticipating a documentary that would supposedly show a picture of Princess Diana in her death car just after the 1997 crash that killed the former Princess of Wales, her boy friend Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul. Keith Allen’s Unlawful Killing, the Daily Mail reported, “will include a graphic black and white close-up of Diana taken moments after the Mercedes carrying the couple crashed in a Paris underpass.”
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That “money shot,” and the renewed currency of the Diana legend in the light of her son William’s recent marriage, lured several hundred journalists to Unlawful Killing’s world premiere screening this afternoon. (The film is not part of the official selection; the producers simply rented a hall and showed the movie.) Averring that he was “not a raving republican [antimonarchist] or Trotskyite,” Allen told the crowd of his intent to focus on irregularities in the British government’s 2007 Inquest into the crash; his film would be “an inquest of the inquest” that would challenge both its methods and the belief of the British public that Diana’s death was an accident caused by a reckless driver and the madly pursuing pararazzi.
In The Guardian last weekend, Allen wrote that he was premiering his film at Cannes because “British lawyers insisted on 87 cuts before any U.K. release could be contemplated. So rather than butcher the film, or risk legal action, we’re showing it in France, then the US, and everywhere except the U.K. Pity, because at a time when the mindless sugar rush of the royal wedding has been sending British republicans into a diabetic coma, it could act as a welcome antidote.”
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Two professional movie watchers — the Corlisses — sat avidly through Unlawful Killing and found no lingering depiction of a gruesome Diana crash-scene photo. But any reasonably alert viewer can guess which comments a lawyer might find dicey under the severe British libel system. Clinical psychologist and TV pundit Oliver James compares Diana’s erstwhile father-in-law, Prince Philip, to the serial killer Fred West. Another talking head calls the Windsors “gangsters in tiaras.” A friend of the late Princess testifies that Diana was warned by Conservative MP (and Winston Churchill grandson) Nicholas Soames to stop criticizing the royal family or “Accidents can happen.” Mohamed al-Fayed, father of the dead Dodi, airs his frequent charge that the Windsors and the British Secret Service killed Diana because she was pregnant and about to announce her betrothal to an Egyptian Muslim. “It’s not a murder,” al-Fayed says, “it’s a slaughter by a bloody racist family.”
Considering that Allen indicts British jurists, law officers and the media for complicity in covering up the facts of Diana’s death because they are under the satanic sway of the royal family, it’s pertinent that the film doesn’t mention that Mohamed al-Fayed financed its £2.5 million ($4.1 million) budget, after Allen was turned down by Channel 4, his usual sponsor, and other TV networks. “He put money in because nobody else would,” Allen said at a press conference after today’s screening. “If I could have got it somewhere else I would have got it somewhere else. But I didn’t; I got it off him.” A mantra of those who make documentary exposés is to follow the money trail; it is unusual, if not compromising, that one of the most outspoken people in a controversial story should also pay for it.
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Whatever its hidden agenda, or the source of its budget, Unlawful Killing fills all the contours of a prime political-conspiracy film: the pugnacious tone, the dramatizing of events, the outrageous charges and, more pertinently, enough plausible evidence to raise questions of foul play. “I don’t believe that there is too much that is new,” Allen said of his film at the press conference. “There’s an old saying in our country which is the best kept secrets are on the bookshelves of the British Library. They’re all there if you care to go and look for them.” The strength of the movie — other than the lingering allure of Lady Di — is that Allen and his co-director and co-writer Victor Lewis-Smith tie the strands of conspiracy together in a zippy, brightly provocative package.
In the royal-wedding summer of 1981, Diana Spencer seemed the perfect young bride for Charles, the Queen’s heir. “All the Windsors wanted was a brood mare crossed with a clothes horse,” Allen says in the narration. “But the brood mare proved to be a kicker.” Bad enough that the marriage ended 12 years later; worse that the adored princess went public with her acrimony. Then she falls for Dodi Fayed and may be pregnant with a future king’s half-sibling, tainting the royal bloodline. What’s a monarchy to do? Allen charges that “It was chillingly convenient for the Windsors that she die when she did.”
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The film quotes a letter Diana wrote to her butler Paul Burrell in 1993, just months after she and Charles separated. “This particular phase in my life is the most dangerous — my husband is planning ‘an accident’ in my car. brake failure & serious head injury…” (Diana suspected that Charles wanted to marry William and Harry’s nanny, Tiffy Legge-Bourke, not his longtime love Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he would wed in 2005.) If any other woman had written this, and then died in the manner she feared, would her husband not have been called to testify in her inquest?
The reenactment of the inquest often wanders into ham acting, and the bombastic al-Fayed is not the best witness for his own case. Allen makes overmuch of the laziness of the British reporters — from the monarchy, not the crime beat — and of his proposal that Diana’s crusading against land mines might have encouraged the worldwide armament industry to have her killed. He also speculates that some malefic force in a car approaching from the other direction could have shined a searing light into Paul’s eyes, causing the crash. (That hardly squares with Allen’s assertion that Paul “was working for the [British] Secret Service when he died.” Was he a suicide driver?)
But the real creepiness of the film is in its exposure of botched police work, intentional or simply incompetent, at the scene of the collision and after. Fully 81 minutes elapsed between the crash and the departure of the ambulance carrying Diana to a hospital. Blood tests of the driver, who was thought responsible because he was drunk at the time, were deemed “toxicologically inexplicable”; they’d been either switched or tampered with. No explanation was given for the jamming of Diana’s seat belt, which could have saved her life if she’d been able to buckle it. The Princess’s body was quickly embalmed, which obscured questions of her pregnancy; and a sanitation crew washed down the crime site before evidence could be taken. And what of the “white Fiat Uno” that some witnesses saw speeding from the scene? A paparazzo who owned a car matching that description was later found dead in it, with two bullets in his brain.
In the end, 15 months after the inquest began, the jury returned a verdict of “unlawful killing, grossly negligent driving of the following vehicles and of the Mercedes.” The movie insists that “the following vehicles” were not the photographers chasing Diana and Dodi but other unnamed agents; and Allen corrupts his case by omitting “and of the Mercedes,” the better to absolve Henri Paul and finger the vast monarcho-politico-judicial complex.
This climactic shrillness dilutes an engrossing case for the prosecution, and plays to the balcony of conspiracy freaks. That’s too bad, since anyone who comes to Unlawful Killing with no prejudices in the matter can find in the massing of evidence and conjecture plenty of food for thought — which, if more carefully prepared and served, could choke the royal family.
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