Even before her untimely death in 1997, the life of Princess Diana has stirred up controversy. The beloved royal figure inspired millions, even as she admitted indiscretions in her marriage and struggles with self-harm. Many criticisms were leveled against the media for its role in creating dangerous conditions around Diana. The use of paparazzi photographers contributed to her death, even as news organizations downplayed their use. Just as culpable in her demise, questions about the British monarchy’s role in the modern UK remain. What more can be said about the tragedy of Diana’s life that has not already been expressed in the countless books, news articles, and productions? This challenge looms large over the Sundance Film Festival documentary, The Princess.
Acknowledging this issue from the jump, documentarian Ed Perkins builds The Princess around this very idea. Utilizing archival footage from news outlets, home videos, and radio commentaries, Perkins and his team seek to understand the media environment of the era. To do this, they draw exclusively from resources created during the 1980s and 1990s. This exercise provides The Princess with an exciting idea at its core, even if the footage supplies few new sentiments in the process.
Approaching The Princess through this lens could not have been an easy task. Perkins examines many of Diana and Charles’ controversial moments that led to their separation, which means there were many issues to explore. Even at the time, commentators notice Charles’s ineptitude and frustrations with his wife. The trip to Australia brings out a ghostly version of Charles as his ego spins out of control. Later, he jokes at Diana’s expense while silencing her in press conferences. Long glances and looks of frustration from Diana are quickly dissected. While in India, Perkins pulls audio and video of the paparazzi speculating about Diana’s thoughts on her marriage. Yet the scene and context do not call for this interpretation of her mindset. Instead, the journalists looking to sensationalize her life cannot imagine her mind could be on anything else. Unfortunately, thanks to their suffocating efforts, they are probably correct.
While the attempt to let the footage speak for itself is valiant, the practicality of this approach creates some issues for Perkins. One of the more frustrating aspects of the film comes in its edit. The documentary rarely brings new information or ideas into the well-known story. Instead, The Princess suffers from an abundance of subtle signs meant to foreshadow problems in the relationship. At times these moments are subtle and barely noticeable. Yet the entertainment apparatus that has sprung up around Diana has changed the audience’s knowledge of the events in question. When it comes to Diana and Charles, even subtle nods shine as bright as a flare in the night.
These issues seem ever-present in the film’s first half but border on tragic in the second half. Multiple commentators continually tell us how long Diana is meant to hold the public eye. Excuses are made for tabloid paparazzi. Some women attack Diana for her “attention-seeking behavior.” This creates an uneasy tone that seems to criticize the media establishment. The problem, however, is that most independent observers have already assigned blame for her death to the media.
While these references make sense to even casual Diana observers, the film seems to miss other pieces of context about the era. While other content has covered the tumultuous nature of Britain’s reign under Thatcher, more problematic and xenophobic leanings are ignored. Footage of riots and chaos precedes Diana’s engagement to Charles, and non-British audiences lack context. Simply stating that the country is in the midst of a recession does not explain symbols of white nationalism and violence that swell into the street.
While The Princess puts its heart in the right place, a lack of new ideas stops the film from achieving something special. Diana fans will flock to this one as a way to spend more time with the Princess. Others will learn about some of the more absurd scandalous for the Prince and Princess of Wales. Unfortunately, despite a fresh approach that yields some fascinating moments, The Princess spends too much time in the familiar to transcend the other projects based on the icon.