At times it seems there couldn’t possibly be anything fresh to say about Diana, Princess of Wales, but Ed Perkins has found a workaround: Let the story retell itself.
The Princess uses old news footage, presented without any explanation or talking heads, to create an as-it-happened account of Diana’s public life, from the days just before her 1981 engagement to Prince Charles to her death in that car crash in Paris 16 years later. The straightforward film is not another attempt to speculate about the private Diana, but to display the image as the world saw it evolve. A flawed little time capsule, the doc veers uneasily between kindly character portrait and shallow attempt at media studies.
An ambitious but flawed experiment.
In a director’s statement, Perkins says that by using this “immersive, unmediated” approach to Diana’s life and death, he hopes to find “greater emotional clarity and honesty about those events and the strange power they had, and still have, on so many people.” That’s a lovely, ambitious idea, but in the end just as detached from reality as the rosy outlines her personal fairy tale once promised.
The problem is that there is no such thing as an unfiltered experience of the past, especially when a filmmaker compiles and selects so many bits and pieces. Of course there is a narrative, which here might have been called “The Princess and the Press,” with the media cast as the nasty obstacle — a giant rock rather than a tiny pea — that caused the heroine so much difficulty.
Perkins created a much stronger documentary in the fascinating, undervalued Tell Me Who I Am (2019), about twin brothers, one of whom had amnesia and was told about his life by the other. In The Princess, viewers are asked to bring their own knowledge of Diana to the now standard version of the story — a narrative that positions Diana as a young woman naive about her royal future in this orchestrated marriage, who grew into a devoted mother and miserably unhappy but glamorous wife, and who learned to shape her own immense fame and live her own life.
The clips recreating that story are at times enlightening, especially when we witness the breathless news coverage surrounding Diana and Charles’ engagement and wedding. From the perspective of today’s harsher media landscape, it is astonishing to see how heavily the press promoted the fairy tale myth, with reporters calling the royal engagement a bright spot for Britain in the midst of the 1980’s economic recession. “The monarchy may be an anachronism, but it’s an anachronism the British dearly love,” a reporter’s voice gushes over scenes of crowds cheering in the street and toasting the newly engaged couple. In a different clip, the voiceover says, “There is no reason to doubt this is an affair of the heart.”
It might have been helpful, even essential, to know where this footage was coming from, though. We might be hearing the BBC or ABC or some long-forgotten, silly talk show. Was the press duped? Were these just two especially puffy journalists? On the media front, Perkins’ immersive approach lets viewers down, because no one would have experienced those reports in such a veiled way at the time.
Without background, we’re often left with heavy irony, thanks to hindsight. As a carriage takes Charles and Diana away from the church on their wedding day, a reporter’s voice says they are among friends because the military riders on horseback beside them are “under the command of Lt.-Col. Andrew Parker-Bowles,” and that Charles and Diana had recently stayed “with him and his wife, Camilla” in the country. There might as well be a head-smack emoji onscreen whenever Camilla — now married to Charles, of course — appears, as she does at one of his polo matches during his marriage to Diana.
The videos themselves are of widely varying quality, from grainy and fuzzy in the 1980s to colorful and sharp, a smart choice that contributes to the you-are-there quality. The snippets are smoothly edited by Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lepira, and Perkins largely avoids the most obvious images, or uses them fleetingly, such as Diana dancing at the White House with John Travolta. But even the lesser-known excerpts feel familiar. After all, the press couldn’t get enough of Diana, and the choice of clips leans hard on the well-founded idea that the paparazzi hounded her from start to finish.
As the royal marriage unravels, it also explodes in public, with tabloid reports of extramarital affairs on both sides, and each camp feeding stories to the press. One headline shown here amusingly blares, “The Royal Mudslingers,” referring to the Prince and Princess themselves. It is no disrespect to Diana — maybe just the opposite — to note how shrewdly she went about managing her image at that point, encouraging friends to spill secrets to Andrew Morton for his sympathetic, bombshell book, Diana: Her True Story, which revealed her utter misery as a royal. Her complicity gets short shrift here, and in a film about her public image it should matter quite a lot.
The documentary ends with Diana’s funeral, and the always wrenching images of young William and Harry walking behind her coffin. But those scenes and others of throngs of people laying flowers for her don’t transport us to another time. They land as reminders of how strongly our sense of Diana and the Windsors has been shaped by speculative fictions that have the solidly-researched aura of truth, from The Queen and The Crown to Pablo Larrain’s recent Spencer. Thoughtful though its premise is, The Princess doesn’t give us enough to reshape those powerful narratives, or to be more than a footnote in the Diana industry.