The Princess of Wails: Diana is a Royal Mess

How could a movie with such an incredible story (the final years of Princess Diana) and such a fine actress (Naomi Watts) be so bad?

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Neil Mockford / FilmMagic / Getty Images

Naomi Watts on the set of the 'Diana' movie on Aug. 8, 2012, in London

Why the nose?

Tragedies leave us asking big, existential questions. Diana, the tragically bad retelling of the final years of Britain’s ill-fated Princess, now in British cinemas and debuting in the U.S. this November, is no exception. The real Diana, a damaged girl from a broken home, evolved into a creature of transcendent celebrity who observed the world from beneath lowered lashes as we observed her. The celluloid Diana, brought to screen by Australian actress Naomi Watts, deploys that signature gaze at every opportunity, winding up to the expression with all the subtlety of an after-dinner speaker preparing to deliver a groan-worthy punchline. At those moments, Watts really does bear a passing resemblance to Diana. Perhaps the prosthetic nose helps the illusion. The rest of the time, the nose renders a pretty actress plain, in a role that requires her to make the camera, and audiences, love her.

Those who choose to devote 113 minutes of their lives to watching this movie will find that the nose is merely the most, uh, prominent of such puzzles. Because if the accuracy of the proboscis matters, what should viewers make of the film’s many inaccuracies? Maybe the filmmakers thought if they got the nose just right and painstakingly recreated Diana’s couture, everything else would ring true. 

Watts’s Diana, slight of build and characterization, is a stranger to waterproof mascara, an unfortunate oversight in one who weeps so prolifically. Cryana, Princess of Wails, lacks her real-life counterpart’s rangy athleticism and the wily complexity that made the Windsors’ near-nemesis so fascinating. And she inhabits a world shorn of context and logic. Though her every move is tracked by paparazzi, Cryana nevertheless stands unremarked in front of the London home of her heart-surgeon lover, Hasnat Khan, bellowing at his window; she succumbs to Khan’s passionate embrace on the backseat of a parked car by the side of a road.

It’s left to befuddled audiences to interpret a scene in which the World’s Most Famous Woman — as Cryana many times describes herself — hurries to a rendezvous in the Soho jazz club Ronnie Scott’s.  Wearing only a wig in a  poor attempt at disguise, she attracts unwanted attention not for being the World’s Most Famous Woman (In A Wig), but as the object of desire of lustful men who call out “hello, sexy!” This all happens on Old Compton Street, the center of the British capital’s gay scene.

Audiences outside London may not spot such infelicities, but most people old enough to remember the Princess will recognize the film as recent history apparently retold by space aliens. And Laura Jennings, a bright and media-savvy 13-year-old, taken as TIME’s guest to see the movie, found the plot too confusing to follow because it assumed too much prior knowledge of Diana, the Princess’s affair with Khan and her last fling, with Dodi Fayed, who died in the Paris crash at her side. The actors playing Khan and Fayed share a marked resemblance, and Fayed’s sudden appearance came with so little explanation, that Laura could only imagine Cryana had hired him as a Khan lookalike, to confuse the photographers.

The film is a royal mess. So let’s cut, like Khan, to the heart of the matter and ask that most fundamental of questions:

Why, oh why, oh why? Oh. Why?

The movie’s distributors and publicists seem to have anticipated a less-than enthusiastic response. Repeated requests by TIME to attend a screening met with encouraging noises but failed to materialize into any opportunity to see the film ahead of its Sept. 20 U.K. release. Those reviewers who did inveigle their way into previews came close to quenching any remaining flickers of curiosity. “Creepy weepie will make you sleepy,” opined the mass market Daily Mail. “A special class of awful,” declared the Daily Telegraph, a favorite broadsheet among British toffs.

Yet TIME persevered, not least because on paper, the project had quite a lot going for it. The narrative of impossible love is based on real events, though Khan, the only surviving witness to many of those events, excoriated the film without seeing it as “completely wrong…all based on hypotheses and gossip.” Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is a prodigious talent, whose best known movie, Downfall—the 2004 account of Adolf Hitler’s last days—garnered an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film and launched an enduring internet meme.  Strangely, there is as yet no Downfall-Diana mashup. Then again, some of the Diana dialogue is beyond parody. “I think I have a right to be confused when up against a gorgeous creature like you,” Cryana tells Khan. “Plus I’m a princess and I get what I want.”

Hirschbiegel explained the attraction the subject matter had for him—and perhaps a reason why it got the better of him—in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE. “I had no idea about Diana, I was totally surprised reading about her,” he said, adding, “I always wanted to do a love story in the first place, a true, honest, authentic love story that involved a sad ending.” The film is certainly sad.

Its backers may not be. TIME attended a showing late on a Saturday afternoon, in a London cinema that charged an eye-watering £22—about $35—per seat. The auditorium was full. Diana died in 1997 but it’s as plain as the (prosthetic) nose on Watts’s face that the Princess remains a bankable commodity.