Solely compiled from archival footage, this expertly edited documentary about Diana, Princess of Wales and her treatment by the media would make a gripping double feature with ‘Spencer’.
August 04, 2022
Finding a moment or statement from The Princess to sum up The Princess is easy. Unlike the powerful documentary's subject in almost all aspects of her life from meeting the future King of England onwards, viewers have the luxury of choice. Working solely with archival materials, writer/director Ed Perkins (Tell Me Who I Am) doesn't lack in chances to demonstrate how distressing it was to be Diana, Princess of Wales — and the fact that his film can even exist also underscores that point. While both The Crown and Spencer have dramatised Diana's struggles with applauded results, The Princess tells the same tale as it was incessantly chronicled in the media between 1981–1997. The portrait that emanates from this collage of news footage, tabloid snaps and TV clips borders on dystopian. It's certainly disturbing. What kind tormented world gives rise to this type of treatment just because someone is famous? The one we all live in, sadly.
Perkins begins The Princess with shaky visuals from late in August 1997, in Paris, when Diana and Dodi Fayed were fleeing the paparazzi on what would be the pair's last evening. The random voice behind the camera is excited at the crowds and commotion, not knowing how fatefully the night would end. That's telling, haunting and unsettling, and so is the clip that immediately follows. The filmmaker jumps back to 1981, to a then 19-year-old Diana being accosted as she steps into the street. Reporters demand answers on whether an engagement will be announced, as though extracting private details from a teenager because she's dating Prince Charles is a right. The Princess continues in the same fashion, with editors Jinx Godfrey (Chernobyl) and Daniel Lapira (The Boat) stitching together example after example of a woman forced to be a commodity and expected to be a spectacle, all to be devoured and consumed.
Listing comparable moments within The Princess' riveting frames is easy; they snowball relentlessly into an avalanche. Indeed, after the film shows Charles and Diana's betrothal news and how it's received by the press and public, the media scrutiny directed Diana's way becomes the subject of a TV conversation. "I think it's going to be much easier. I think we're going to see a change in the attitude of the press. I think that now she's publicly one of the royal family, all this telephoto lens business will stop," a talking head from four decades back asserts — and it isn't merely the benefit of hindsight that makes that claim sound deeply preposterous. Later, Perkins features a soundbite from a paparazzo, which proves equally foolish, not to mention a cop-out. "All we do is take pictures. The decision to buy the pictures is taken by the picture editors of the world, and they buy the pictures so their readers can see them. So at the end of the day, the buck stops with the readers," the photographer contends.
The Princess isn't here to simplistically and squarely blame the public, but it does let the material it assembles — and the fact that there's so much of it, and that nothing here is new or astonishing even for a second because it's already been seen before — speak for itself. What a story that all unfurls, and how, including pondering the line between mass fascination and being complicit. Perkins eschews contemporary interviews and any other method of providing recent context, and also makes plain what everyone watching already knows: that escaping Diana has been impossible for more than 40 years now, during her life and after her death a quarter-century ago as well, but it was always worse by several orders of magnitude for Diana herself. The expressions that flicker across her face over the years, evolving from shy and awkward to determined and anguished, don't just speak volumes but downright scream. In the audio samples overlaid on paparazzi shots and ceaseless news coverage, that's dissected, too, and rarely with kindness for the woman herself.
Being sympathetic to royalty isn't a prerequisite for feeling perturbed by The Princess. Being a fan of The Crown or believing that Kristen Stewart deserved an Oscar for Spencer — which she did — isn't either. All that's required is empathy for anyone whose existence is stripped of choice, who is made to perform a certain role no matter what, who's saddled with onerous tasks that dismantle their agency and identity, and who gets torn to pieces whether they comply or rebel. That's a key reason why Diana's plight keeps resonating and always will. It's also why 'the People's Princess' label continues to echo. The latter was coined to describe her popularity and that feverish obsession, but it cannily cuts to the core of a heartbreaking truth: Diana attained a supposed fairytale but discovered that nothing in life is a dream, a realisation that couldn't be more relatable and universal.
As well-established as the details are, the minutiae still spills out as The Princess progresses: the coupling primarily to provide an heir to the throne, the unsurprising distance in Diana and Charles' marriage, the persistent presence of Camilla Parker Bowles, several layers of envy, the 'Dianagate' tapes and the nation-stopping interviews all included (electricity surges during her 1995 tell-all chat with Martin Bashir, thanks to kettles boiling across Britain, are noted). Ignoring how the media kept shaping Diana's narrative would mean shutting your eyes and blocking your ears, even if the score by The Crown's Martin Phipps didn't maximise the tension. Ignoring the parallels rippling through the royal camp today, in the way that Meghan Markle has been treated by the media, is similarly out of the question. It isn't by accident that Perkins lingers on a young Prince Harry at his mother's funeral to wrap the movie up, after all.
The Princess' approach isn't new, either. It's effective, though. And, as the same style proved in recent Australian docos The Final Quarter and Strong Female Lead — films that used archival footage to explore how perceptions are manufactured by the press as well — it's nothing short of damning about media practices and the audience hunger they think they're satisfying. Those two features explored how AFL star Adam Goodes was regarded in the twilight of his career, and how the fourth estate surveyed Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard while she was in the nation's top job. They dived into the self-fuelling cycle that stems from predatory coverage and the public's responses, one feeding the other and vice versa. Sound familiar? Watching both alongside The Princess would make for grim and harrowing viewing — essential viewing, too, particularly in a world that shows so few signs of changing.