Bonfire of the Vanities: the Diana conspiracy film

Mohamed Al-Fayed put up the entire $5-million budget of a ’documentary’ that brands the royal family ’gangsters with tiaras’

Sometimes the press conference is better than the movie. Vastly better in the case of Unlawful Killing, a controversial documentary that suggests Princess Di was murdered and tries to prove there was a conspiracy to cover up the facts of her death. The British press has already created huge buzz around the film with outraged reports that it includes a photograph of Diana in the car wreck that was deemed unfit for publication in the U.K. Consequently a high-powered crowd of press showed up for the film’s premiere in the Cannes market—it’s not in the festival’s official program, and now that I’ve seen it, I can understand why.

The photograph is a red herring. It’s just a fleeting image of Diana in the wrecked car, and is not in the least exploitative. But the film is another story. Without actually accusing Prince Philip of plotting Diana’s demise, it paints him as a former Nazi bedfellow—and the shadowy villain behind a racist mafia of a monarchy that wanted her out of the picture. The epic inquest into Diana’s death is portrayed as a sham, and the media are pilloried for ignoring scandalous evidence and misrepresenting the jury’s verdict. Even if such views are music to your ears, it’s hard to warm to Unlawful Killing.

Neither good journalism nor good filmmaking, it’s a shrill, shabby polemic that does a disservice to its own point of view. Serving up interviews with Piers Morgan, the late Tony Curtis and a psychologist who diagnoses Philip as a psychopath, it unearths no fresh evidence—something British director Keith Allen freely admitted at a press conference that turned into a total circus. It took place at the lavish Grand Salon of the Carlton Hotel, the same regal venue where Angelina Jolie held court for Kung Fu Panda 2 the previous day. Clearly, this is one of those fishy documentaries with serious money behind it. The first question was: whose money?

Mohamed Al-Fayed’s money, as it turns out. After failing to get financing from U.K. broadcasters, Al-Fayed paid for the entire budget of Unlawful Killing. How much was that? The director, who also had to be prompted to remember names of prominent characters in his film, said he had no idea. Then, out of the wings, a heavy-looking Brit who said he represented Al-Fayed suddenly appeared to inform us that the Arab tycoon, and father of Diana’s late suitor, put up £2.5 million (roughly $5 million).

Shortly before that, I’d asked the director: “As a filmmaker doing a ‘forensic’ piece,’ why did you not indicate your relationship with Mr. Al-Fayed in the film, and the fact that he financed the film?” Allen looked baffled, as if it had never occurred to him that a lack of transparency would mar the credibility of a movie that portrays its benefactor as a grossly maligned saint. He said mentioning Al-Fayed’s involvement would “interrupt the flow.” Then he added: “I think you’ll find that there are an immense number of films coming out in America that were financed by the Mafia and there’s no reference [in those films].”

I went on to ask Allen about a scene in which Al-Fayed burns the royal coats of arms that once adorned his Harrods store, in view of his son Dodi’s mausoleum. It appears that the film crew is the only “media” on hand to capture the bonfire.

“That was a set up for the film, no?” I asked.

“No, he was going to do it, and I filmed it,” said the director. “The action didn’t take place because I was making a film. I actually recorded what happened.”

“But if you wanted to present a credible forensic analysis,” I asked, trying a new tack, “Why were you so strident in your condemnation of the monarchy as ‘gangsters with tiaras’?”

“It’s an observation.”

To be fair Allen—an actor who’s also the father of singer Lily Allen—admitted he wasn’t trying to do journalism or documentary, just raise some questions.

But the fun was just starting. Next, British author Martyn Gregory, author of Diana, the Last Days, stood up and launched into a diatribe: “I must say I was really, really disappointed with the film. It regurgitates everything Mohamed Al- Fayed has being saying since the year 2000.” Throughout the press conference Gregory kept jumping up to quarrel with Allen, until the moderator had to give him a lecture on the value of English civility.

In the film, Allen brands all British journalists as establishment toadies controlled by sycophantic employers vying for knighthoods. There were a lot of Brit journalists in the room, and one of them made the valid point that they wouldn’t be there if they were as censorious as he suggested. And one politely asked why there were no dissenting views in the film, at least to give it the impression of balance.

Allen said he thought they’d get expressed without his help. He also wondered if his film would ever play commercially in the U.K. His lawyers have asked for 87 cuts to make it palatable to insurers. A number of them concern accusations that the inquest into Diana’s death was a deliberate cover-up, which leads him into contempt of court territory.

The most jaw-dropping moment in the press conference occurred when a British journalist, curious about the director’s personal stake in the material, asked him if he’d ever met Diana. No, he had not. “But my son and daughter have. Years ago my ex-wife, Alison, had produced a movie called Hear My Song which was chosen as a royal premiere. And bless his heart, Alfie, my boy, it was the first time he had ever worn a suit, a little black velvet suit. He was putting on his trousers and he caught his cock in his zip. I had the awful job of having to unzip him and pull his penis out. Very painful. And I’ve got a wonderful photograph of Princess Di bending over and talking to Lily and Alfie, and laughing. I asked why—my son had told her about what had happened to his penis.”