Over footage of Princess Diana visiting India, a commentator remarks, “When you put a modern person in an ancient institution, they will be destroyed.” This statement, which appears about a third of the way into the film, is the thesis of the new HBO documentary “The Princess,” from director Ed Perkins, premiering Saturday, August 13th. I was blown away by the film’s use of mostly archival news footage after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year. Upon a second watch I found it even more compelling the way Perkins, and editors Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira, expertly deploy this footage to tell not a biography of ‘The People’s Princess,’ but rather of the way the media shaped the perception of her public life.
It’s been 25 years since Diana's tragic passing in a car accident in Paris while she and her companion Dodi Al Fayed fled from paparazzi photographers. Perkins’ doc opens with this moment, captured by a couple on vacation. In their grainy home video you can clearly see Princess Diana’s car speeding off into the night, motorcycle paparazzi hot on their trail. It’s a somber way to begin the doc, but by beginning where we know it all ends, Perkins removes the titillation of waiting for this moment from the viewer.
Instead he takes us on a journey through Princess Diana’s life on film, with no added contextualizing text or talking heads. The media footage speaks for itself, as do Princess Diana and Prince Charles themselves. The other genius of starting with this car footage is it makes you aware from the get go how often she was filmed while driving or being driven. From their wedding day there is footage of the couple’s every move by car; from the transportation to and arrival at the St. Paul’s Cathedral, their exit and procession through London, and their arrival back at home again. Later there’s footage of her leaving the hospital by car after Prince Harry’s birth. In a parallel to her wedding, the car holding her casket during her funeral procession was also filmed from every possible angle.
This obsession with following her movement in cars is seen even in the earliest footage used. A journalist follows Diana as she makes her way to her spunky orange car, asking intrusive questions about her impending engagement to the Prince. This Diana is young (19) and not yet media savvy. But although she is shy, you already see her impish smile and a brief glimpse of who this young girl might have been had she been able to grow outside the constriction of the Royal Family.
In her first official joint interview with Charles as an engaged couple she can barely look at the camera, holding her body inward. She answers with simple, direct sentences. She mostly follows the lead of Charles. Later on in similarly paired interviews, Diana’s transformation is apparent, not just from her fashion choices, but the way she is more comfortable speaking on camera. She holds herself up with confidence. Her answers are playful, often teasing Charles.
Princess Diana came of age in the midst of the second wave of feminism, but also regressive Thatcherism. In that same first interview, the host refers to her as a “nanny” who was about to marry a prince and someday become Queen, as if she weren’t part of the aristocratic Spencer family. She was referred to as “Sweet, kind, nice, shy” and one particularly gross report stated that her father and uncle and others “vouched” for her virginity. While waiting for the birth of their first child, one young woman interviewed on camera states she hopes it’s a boy because “boys are best” and when asked if she is a feminist she incredulously answers, “No!”.
The filmmakers have unearthed footage from news reports, talk shows, and radio broadcasts where people openly debated the state of their marriage and the character of Princess Diana. It’s particularly jarring to hear the viciousness with which women spoke of her from the very beginning. Through their skillful edit, the change in how Princess Diana was presented in the media becomes apparent. As Charles and Diana’s marriage began to dissolve, she was then branded “determined and domineering” and “willful.”
In perhaps her most famous interview, broadcast shortly before the announcement of their impending divorce, Princess Diana remarks, “I was a problem full stop.” Around this same time Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York appeared on Oprah. When asked why they didn’t just play the game, she replies, “We’re like rivers, we want to go around the next turn.” Both interviews were in the wake of a publicly broadcast interview in which Prince Charles admitted to his longtime affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. The way these interviews play off each other again asks the viewer to think about how these women were treated within the Royal Family, but also within the media itself, as if all the money in the world could make heartbreak and loss of one’s personal agency palatable.
Throughout the film, Princess Diana is framed by the media as both the “best thing that’s ever happened to the monarchy” and someone who has “done untold damage to the Royal Family.” At first she was an asset that made the Royal Family more accessible. Her marriage was positioned as something the whole country could rally around in the midst of a recession and riots and unrest. But this openness brought with it a greater critical gaze from the public at the family as an institution. After her death, this obsession with her as a symbol of hope again united mourners around not just the United Kingdom, but the globe. But, as the footage shows, it also brought out many detractors who found all this public grief akin to a farce.
“The Princess” does not shy away from the mass consumption of Princess Diana the icon by the public, in much the same way Marilyn Monroe was (and still is) consumed in the United States. (One photographer in the documentary insists he takes photos of her because the papers will pay him for them and they’ll do it because the masses will buy the papers, so the “buck stops with the readers.”). Both women, through their sheer magnetism, and in Princess Diana’s case altruism, inspired not just consumption, but true emotional connections within people, and in some a defensive need to protect them like a family member. It does not offer an explanation for why these feelings arise, nor does it judge them. Instead, it offers a mirror for us to examine for ourselves this fascination, these emotions, and our own complacency within the institutions that ultimately destroyed them.
Premiering on HBO and HBO Max on August 13.