The late Diana Spencer’s life is again retold in The Princess. Directed by Ed Perkins, whose last film was 2019’s Tell Me Who I Am, a true story of identical twins and their dark family secret. Much like that feature, this film is compassionate, even if it lacks anything revealing about the late royal.
The documentary chronicles Diana’s life from the weeks before her engagement is announced to Prince Charles until her death in a Paris car accident in 1997. Entirely made up of archival footage, including clips from the press, vox pops with the general public and paparazzi shots, The Princess skirts the cliché talking heads.
This film knows audiences are aware of this story and how it ends. This footage depends on the collective opinions, and hindsight audiences will have of her marriage to Charles. At the time, people saw her pre-marriage interviews as coy and reserved; now, you will view her body language as uncomfortable and depressed. Through historical footage, Perkins will make you wonder how nobody noticed Charles and Diana were doomed from the start.
Through 90-minutes, The Princess showcases familiar images and never-seen-before footage to bring together a story we have seen countless times before. It concentrates on the fairy tale wedding, the crowds outside the hospital during the births of William and Harry and her public divorce. Perkins is wise to not rehash the familiar clips, showing an alternative view of events seen around the world.
The rise of the public’s fascination with Diana comes at the same time as civil unrest in the UK. This is smartly and subtly showcased through people interviewed in run downtown centres and placards sitting behind cracked windows. No wonder the public put their hopes and dreams into this former nanny.
The Princess also explores whether the media and public really did lead to her mental health issues and early death. It’s not hard to wonder this when the tabloid exploits her struggles with glee; camera crews scramble across cities to get the best view of her. Perkins lays those who brought those tabloids, queued outside her home and brought the tell-all books as much as those who profited from it. Diana and her downfall almost became a cottage industry in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s.
The Princess fails to explain why the public put so much energy into her, especially in comparison to Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. It also fails to explore her deification after her untimely death. While Diana was a caring human who cared deeply for her children and compassionately gave her high-profile charity work a personal touch, she also courted the press and used their interest to her advantage. The infamous interview with Martin Bashir and admittance to the James Hewitt affair accentuates this.
The 90-minute documentary feels like a quick stop through her life rather than an in-depth exploration of her tragically short life in the public eye. An extra 20 minutes could have rounded out the portrayal even further. Perkins doesn’t overdo the story to the point where it almost becomes a dry watch. The documentary is edited smoothly with an unsettling score by Martin Phipps doing the heavy emotional lifting.
So after over 40 years in the limelight, is there anything left to say about Diana? Perhaps not, if The Princess is anything to go on. After nearly half a century, the mystery of Diana will continue to thrill audiences even when there is nothing else left to say.
The Princess premiered on HBO Max on August 13
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy