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By Gioia Forster
A list of recent box office hits reads like a British history book. The Queen caused a stir with its portrayal of a publicity-shy monarch, The King’s Speech showed Britain’s vulnerable side, W.E. proved that Madonna should finally leave the film industry alone, and The Iron Lady prompted huge debate on Thatcher’s legacy. Now it’s been announced that Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) will direct a film about Diana’s last two years, with Naomi Watts as the lead. The movie, Caught in Flight is the pinnacle of a recent fascination on both sides of the Atlantic. Why this sudden interest? Are Will and Kate Britain’s most successful marketing campaign?
The UK’s distant history has long been an industry staple. Elisabeth I and Henry VIII have attracted directors and producers in the US and the UK, from Cate Blanchett’s two-part portrayal of the Virgin Queen to Eric Bana playing Henry caught between two Boleyn sisters. On the small screen, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s Henry in The Tudors lasted four seasons. With Shakespeare forever fashionable, most recently in Anonymous, the fascination with former monarchs is unsurprising. Yet lately, cinema has started breaking taboos. With Elisabeth II the model of “quiet dignity”, Helen Mirren’s portrayal of her darkest hour– certainly in popularity terms – was daring and critical, exposing her weaknesses and humanity. The Queen also opened the door to 10 Downing Street, and the idea of adapting British political dramas, a huge success for Meryl Streep’s Thatcher portrayal.
Across the pond, Hollywood has always loved presidents. Nixon and Kennedy are favourites – from 1976’s All the President’s Men to the 1991 Oliver Stone-hit JFK and Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis. With huge interest in the 2008 Presidential race recent films have focused more on the inner workings of campaigns, such as HBO’s Recount on the 2000 Florida voting debacle, and more recently the epic tale of betrayal Ides of March. Echoing Robert Redford’s hugely successful The Candidate from 1977, the Clooney-directed drama delves into American presidential primaries, and the notion that in politics, no one is who they claim to be.
If anything in British cinema is a taboo-breaker, it’s Lady Di. Mixing politics and the monarchy in an explosive combination, the story of Diana’s life and death is emotional, if prone to conspiracy theories. Perhaps that’s why it has never been attempted before. Naomi Watts says it is an honour “to… play this iconic role”, and she looks forward to “rising to the challenge” that playing the ‘queen of people’s hearts’ will bring. Now might the perfect time to take the challenge – British actors are hugely popular, with the likes of Colin Firth, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan winning plaudits overseas. British television has crossed the Atlantic, from shows like Downton Abbey to actors such as Dominic West who snatch up lead roles in American television shows. If Watts plays her part well, the US will love Lady Di like they love Kate Middleton. In the UK, Hirschbiegel’s project will tread on more than a few toes and reenergise the debate on the Princess, the royal family’s wrongdoings and why she had such a tragic fate. Yet it’s a story that had to hit the big screen sooner or later. And it will be one of many recent films that are shaping Great Britain’s image and permitting an insight into a country that is often careful not to expose too much.