Photo: ‘The Princess’
Returning to the Much-Told Story of Princess Diana
We didn’t need another film about the late Princess Diana. The story of Princess Diana, is a familiar and repetitive legend of modern Hollywood. . In an objectively short amount of time, the Diana story became a sort of Shakespearean affair on its own: a kind-hearted figure is destroyed by the people who supposedly worship her, swarming her funeral like termites, not letting her have peace even in death. We didn’t need to know the on-paper details of the story — we have Wikipedia and dozens of hours of archival footage free to use at our fingertips. A common criticism I’ve seen of ‘The Princess’, documentary concerned with the project that is Princess Diana, is that it doesn’t present us with any new information. This film will not give you any revelatory facts if you’re even somewhat familiar with the story. The haunting beauty of ‘The Princess’ comes not from its power as a biography, but from how it weaves together nearly two decades’ worth of a public figure’s relationship with the outside world, as told from the latter’s perspective.
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Whereas Pablo Larraín’s lauded 2021 film ‘Spencer’ focused on the internal life of a young Diana, in a way that doesn’t stick close to historical facts but which feels spiritually true to her character, ‘The Princess’ places all its bets on the external, placing Diana’s life in the context of a global society which was becoming increasingly interconnected by way of around-the-clock news media and the early stages of the internet. If you’re looking for a documentary that tells Diana’s story through her words, you’ll be disappointed, since while we do get a handful of interview excerpts from Diana (a shockingly small portion of the runtime), these spots seem deliberately tight-lipped. Diana herself didn’t appear at all keen on exposing more of herself to the public than she had to. From the time she married Prince Charles in 1981, in what was then one of the most-watched events on TV worldwide, to her death, Diana pretty much lived her life as seen through other eyes. She could do something as innocuous as sunbathe in her own backyard and she could retrieve camera footage of her doing just that. The life and death of Diana Spencer may have seemed like a tragedy of epic proportions, but it also served as a harbinger for future public figures, who would somehow have even less privacy granted to them than her.
A Documentary Entirely Reliant on Its Editing
Documentary filmmaking, as a rule of thumb, mostly happens in the editing room. Anyone could, theoretically, make a documentary feature with a tiny budget and a small crew; the hard part comes when you’ve got your footage and you now have to turn it into a movie with a cohesive narrative. Director Ed Perkins must have had a difficult job acquiring footage for ‘The Princess’, considering the movie is entirely archival footage. The variety of the archival footage, however, is certainly worth commending. Not only do we get what you would expect (news spotlights, interviews with public figures, etc.), but we also get home video footage from people who are not public figures — normal people who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. The film opens with footage taken by a couple of tourists in Paris, in 1997, on the night some paparazzi drove Diana and her friend Dodi Fayed into the crash that would take both their lives.
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What makes much of the archival footage so haunting is that the people both in front of and behind all these cameras seem blissfully unaware of the abyss they’re about to fall into. After the opening scene with the tourists, we jump back in time to the day of Diana being wedded to Prince Charles, in what may have been (at least from an outside perspective) the happiest day of her life — indeed, the happy ending expected of a princess in a fairy tale. Yet as one commentator notes during the ceremony that had eyes all over the world watching, Diana’s life would continue long after that glorious day.
‘The Princess’ is not a traditional documentary in the sense that it does not cover Diana’s entire life, nor does it focus much on laying down the base facts of its subject. Instead, it assumes, correctly, that you have all of this mapped out in your head already. What makes the film different, and indeed what generates such a mixed reaction from moviegoers, is the way in which it tells its knowingly familiar story. It works, from beginning to end, almost like one huge montage, perpetually in motion, letting now-ancient voices and camera footage tell its story with virtually no interruptions.
The painful and protracted erosion of Diana’s marriage is given to us through dozens of outside spectators, often speculating, sometimes unambiguously intruding on the privacy of their subjects; it’s sickening, but it’s also not uncommon. With ‘The Princess’, Perkins set out to examine what may have caused Diana’s flame to burn out, and in doing so, he takes aim at news media, at tabloids, at other celebrities, and perhaps most importantly, at the British monarchy. Now, being a proud Union man, I don’t have any love toward the monarchy, but I think it’s fair to say it’s an outmoded system of governance that will, hopefully, if not inevitably, give way to a fully democratic British government — a British government that will have finally buried its extensively imperialist history.
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I’m sure we’ll get more films about Princess Diana, but I’m really convinced that we don’t need another one. The story has been told and retold so many times now that one more retread will likely feel like exploitation. ‘The Princess’ walks a tightrope over said exploitation, examining the slow disintegration of a woman who really did seem to be good at heart, being caught up in public scandal and private unhappiness — unhappiness that could not even be kept private. Diana’s story was not the last of its kind, naturally, as we’ve gotten more cases of public figures who have crumbled under the pressure, and as the internet has become far more ubiquitous since Diana’s death, we won’t be seeing the end of such cases.
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The world has become smaller and less private, and it can be nigh-impossible to take out one’s dirty laundry without a million pairs of eyeballs staring at it; this may be hard to comprehend for the vast majority of us, who are not public figures after all, but it may soon come to pass that even the most unassuming of persons will not be able to escape the flood of easy-to-access information. Watching the archival footage fathered in ‘The Princess’ on YouTube, as individual videos, is far from the same thing as watching the film they were gathered into, for the simple reason that ‘The Princess’ tells the same story far more masterfully, and far more scarily, than what any one of us can manage by making a playlist of old interviews. ‘The Princess’ is, in spirit if not as a literal fact, the final film about Princess Diana — it has to be, if it wants to make sure its work is not in vain.
CREW: Director: Ed Perkins, Producers: Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn, Vanessa Tovel, Editors: Jinx Godfrey, Daniel Lapira, Music: Martin Phipps
By Brian Collins
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