The modern tragedy of Princess Diana is a story that will feel familiar to those around the globe due to the multitude of documentaries and now feature films based on her story – not to mention the relatively recent timeframe in which events occurred. The Princess from filmmaker Ed Perkins seeks to do something a little different to the traditional features on the subject of Diana, opting for telling her story only through immersive archive footage. The result is an experience that asks us to examine the role of the media and public in Diana’s story – successfully adding a fresh perspective to this era defining period.
A multitude of archive footage is assembled and chronologically ordered examining the life of Princess Diana – beginning in the early stages of her courtship with Prince Charles, following their turbulent marriage and subsequent separation until the initial aftermath of Diana’s death. The Princess captures a sense of wider attitudes to the monarchy throughout this period whilst also delving into the political and social context in the UK throughout Diana’s time in the public eye.
Perkins sets out to ask questions about the public’s complicity in the tragedy of Diana through our relationship with monarchy and celebrity culture. Throughout the feature, footage delves into public opinion and fascination with Diana from the very moment she was thrust into the spotlight through to the masses of mourning crowds lined up by Buckingham Palace after her death. As well as centring on footage of Diana, The Princess also gives insights into dialogue from the press and photographers who would pursue her – citing the public hunger for Diana as the reason for their intrusive behaviours.
Beginning with handheld video camera footage from American tourists in Paris on the night of Diana’s death, we get an eerie foreshadowing of the fateful night in which Diana lost her life. Setting the sombre tone in its early moments, The Princess subsequently delves back into Diana’s early romance with Charles capturing her as the English Rose who turned the Prince’s generally muted reaction around. Yet its clear from early interview footage with the pair that media interaction would be a particular strain on both, with their lack of synchronicity being apparent in their struggle to answer questions regarding what they have in common. Early glimpses of how invasive media intention would become are shared in worrying audio extracts, one citing that male family members could vouch for Diana’s virginity. The added sense of hindsight a contemporary viewer can bring to these awkward exchanges and moments of intrusive personal harassment only furthers the sense of sadness within the story.
The footage exploring the subsequent hysteria emerging from Charles and Diana’s wedding marks a shift from stiff seventies journalism to a more demanding type of media intrusion through eighties tabloid journalism. From the moment of the wedding, Perkins crafts a sense of the overwhelming invasiveness, noise and fascination that followed Diana throughout her public life resulting in some hard-hitting viewing. Camera flashes, seething crowds, and shouting photographers fill every piece of footage Diana is in, whilst public musings about her life, marriage, children, weight and personal behaviour are never far from hand in numerous archival vox pops which Perkins deploys.
The Princess is particularly impressive in capturing a sense of the national political and social context of the United Kingdom throughout Diana’s time in the spotlight; delving into moments such as the rise of the National Front, the boom in literary tell-alls, the rise of tabloid celebrity journalism (including the leaking of both Diana and Charles’ respective private tapes) or further royal events such as the 1992 Windsor Castle fire.
As The Princess progresses, its carefully selected archival footage gives glimpses of the cracks in the royal marriage giving a sense of the growing distance between the couple. Although this is told solely through archive footage, this has been assembled in the way of a narrative that will be familiar to audiences. Intercutting these clips of uncomfortable shared royal duties with game shooting and fox-hunting provides some heavy-handed symbolic comparisons to Diana’s relationships whether that be with Charles, the press or the public. Further foreshadowing appears with glimpses of Camilla Parker-Bowles are seen in the archive footage, with the now Duchess of Cornwall treated like of a pantomime villain lurking at the back of sets.
The Princess delves into Diana’s complex relationship with the media, capturing a sense of press resentment at feeling used by Diana or frustrated when she refused to pose or perform for them. Further examinations on the Royal’s attempt to use the media provide intrigue such as Charles’s brand rebuilding with the Jonathan Dimbelby documentary Charles: The Private Man, the Public Role or Diana’s Panorama special with Martin Bashir. Whilst the The Princess does give light to the press perspective, its depiction of the overwhelming intrusion and harassment faced by Diana at the hands of the media rightfully leaves little room for counter-argument.
In its final moments, The Princess reverts back to handheld video camera footage from American tourists reacting to the death of Diana giving insight into the everyday public shock, whilst the closing segment of the documentary sees the hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered to pay tribute. The paparazzi hounding mourners and archival footage of pundits criticising the outpouring of grief, capture a bittersweet sense that even in death, the debate, noise and overwhelming intensity of Diana’s life never faded.
There’s an eerie contemporary resonance to much of The Princess as it examines the yo-yoing popularity of the Royals – something we currently experience surrounding the public scandal in the wake of the current events surrounding Prince Andrew and continued tabloid fascination with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
The Princess plays as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2022. It can be watched at Festival.Sundance.org. Find ticket details here.