(Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of The Princess, .now streaming on HBO. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
If you are someone without an abiding interest in the British monarchy (or royals anywhere), then yet another cinematic work about England’s late Princess Diana may hardly strike your fancy. And yet there is something in The Princess, the new documentary from Ed Perkins (Tell Me Who I Am), that bears watching. Perhaps it’s the fact that the entire piece is composed of archival clips (culled from news and private footage), with the scored soundtrack providing the only additional sound, that lends the movie a sense of real emotional urgency (sorely lacking from last year’s fictionalized Spencer, despite the dramatic histrionics within). Or maybe the implosion of an institution steeped in problematic history proves inescapably gripping. Whatever the reason, we can’t look away.
Perkins begins on the fateful night of August 31, 1997, as Diana and her lover, Dodi Fayed, speed away from paparazzi, heading to what we know is certain death. The moment is captured on a cheap video camera held by a British passerby who decides to stop and film. The image quality may be poor, but the moment sticks. As will most sequences thereafter. Call it “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (with apologies to García Márquez), but the inexorable march towards death colors even the happy scenes that follow.
From there, we jump back to 19-year-old Diana Spencer, already harassed by photographers in the days following rumors of her engagement to Prince Charles. They will be a constant presence in her life. Without omniscient commentary (allowing voices from the time to speak as narration, instead), Perkins moves through the glorious nuptials, the national (and international) joy that ensues, and then on to the developing rift between the partners. As Diana grows more popular at home and abroad, Charles increasingly sulks, pining for the woman he wished to marry (and since has): Camilla Parker Bowles (herself married to another back then).
Judiciously choosing which events will land with the greatest impact, Perkins crafts a poignant portrait of a woman initially undone by the pressures of Buckingham Palace who then rises to the challenge of creating a life of her own. Given the 1995 “Humanitarian of the Year” Award for her efforts in support of various health-related organizations, she was in a much more solid place than she had earlier been when she and Charles finalized their divorce (after a long separation) in 1996. Always, she was dogged by the press, even while occasionally seeming to court their attention.
Beyond the raw human elements—focused not only on Diana and the Windsors but also on the public at large—the movie serves as an intricate meditation on celebrity culture and the media’s role within it. It’s also yet another condemnation of Prince Charles’ behavior towards Diana and of the inability of the royal family to adapt to changing circumstances. In addition, as sad as it can be, it is never not fully engaging. I went in with very little desire to learn more about the topic yet emerged moved by the experience. The Princess is a royal subject I can support.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
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