I’m old enough to remember the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The streets of London cloaked in a grieving fog of shock and disbelief. The sense of overwhelming helplessness as mourners laid flowers at Kensington Palace. Diana’s sons, William and Harry, walking behind their mother’s coffin in the funeral procession. Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ echoed through Westminster Abbey and the radio waves as it reached number one on the charts. Like the moon landing or September 11th, some memories are etched forever in your mind. Diana’s tragic car accident that ended her life on August 31st 1997, is no exception.
It has been 25 years since her death, and in wrestling with those highly potent and resurfaced emotions, it’s fair to say interest in Diana has undergone a recent media resurgence. Actress Emma Corrin depicted a youthful Princess to be in season 4 of The Crown, while the Oscar-nominated Kristen Stewart tail-ends Diana’s dissolving marriage and fractured relationship with the family in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. The less said, the better, with the ill-advised Diana: The Musical or the Naomi Watts film in 2013. While the spiritual essence of Diana is uncannily mirrored and her well-documented mental health struggles placed into a relatable context, somehow, despite the best intentions, they only go so far.
That’s partly because of Diana’s complex and multifaceted personality. How do you accurately measure the life of an individual who became a symbolic public figure? A life filled with glamour, inspiration, and significant dedication to charitable causes. A dichotomic life between Royal superstardom (and subsequent public adulation) versus the irreparable damage of a failing marriage played out on a global stage. Somehow, a dramatised account doesn’t feel adequate or enough. Reality-wise, maybe nothing ever will feel definitive. And maybe, even as I write this review – just mere days after the Queen’s Jubilee weekender – is a sad reminder for someone who had more to give and what she meant to a generation as the woman who changed British Monarchy forever.
As an admirable attempt, you feel Ed Perkins’ documentary – The Princess – arguably gives the best you’re going to get from Diana’s story (albeit from afar). Unlike other documentaries which are blessed with narration and multiple talking heads from its leading contributors, The Princess doesn’t have that luxury. Diana is not with us to tell her side of the story, and you can take the hint that no member of the Royal family was involved in the production to either credit or discredit her claims. What Perkins relies on – to its strength – is the people to tell her story. After all, we lived through the images we saw of her, aptly poignant considering she was ‘The People’s Princess’
Perkins doesn’t present anything new – nothing that we haven’t seen before. There are no new revelations, secrets, or freshly uncovered discoveries to digest. Like Wikipedia entries, its broad stroke commentary is on a scope limited by the attainable footage and imagery available to craft. But what the production managed to source is incredible. In stitching raw, archival footage into a well-constructed timeline of events, Perkins delivers a powerful and moving documentary, piecing together Diana’s so-called fairy tale marriage to Charles to her fateful end in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris.
Similar to the effects of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, sometimes it takes a documentary film to connect the dots and put things into an engaging and resonating perspective. The Princess manages to weave a volatile backdrop of British culture and social unrest, from the rise of the EDL, the Falklands War to the Brixton Riots. But purposely, it captures the mood of the nation, presenting an unfiltered contrast of emotions that further puts into question the role of the media, the perils of celebrity culture and the country’s obsession with the Royal family
There’s no shying away from the horrific, inappropriate, and sometimes disgusting commentary that surrounded Diana during her life. Her virginity stated by one commentator as something to “vouch” as if to celebrate her innocence and purity (Diana was 19 when she was engaged to a 31-year-old Charles). Another labels her a “monster” who craved attention at every opportunity. The temperature increases as soon as the gaze switches to the press and paparazzi, who belittle her for not giving them the photos they wanted. Even more shocking is their confessional justification for their persistence, blaming a media-consuming public who couldn’t get enough. On the flip side, others openly criticised them for not leaving the Princess alone. Filled with a sea of nameless voices who echo throughout, it becomes a 108-minute foreboding and unflinching vacuum, where public opinion was a constant shift into harassment and bombardment within a clear societal divide.
Within this immersive cauldron of toxicity, occasionally, thoughts creep up about Diana’s point of view. Again, it struggles to find that, again limited by the scope and access. For instance, there’s no chance of fully understanding the emotional weight and burden for a woman who grew up in the spotlight to find her voice in the maddening storm. The coy, naive smiles at the celebrated highs of her engagement to the depressive, lonely lows when photographed in front of the Taj Mahal are a spectrum of emotions
Even the infamous BBC Panorama interview with Martin Bashir is reframed for context. Diana is not presented as a saint-like figure, placed on an untouchable pedestal. Neither are the Royal family; by contrast, it’s a guilty illustration of their out of touch reputation and self-inflicted coldness from their documented interviews. A feeling summed up by Charles’s growing indifference and jealousy towards Diana and subsequent affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. But Perkins makes it evident that a picture can paint a thousand words. The overwhelming sadness to outrun the suffocating bubble is there for the world to see.
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In deciphering the ‘fairy tale’ mystique of Diana’s life, the culmination is a powerhouse of emotional thoughts. Thanks to the producing talent of Simon Chinn (Tina, Tell Me Who I Am) and Jonathan Chinn (LA 92, Whitney), there’s not one single overriding emotion it leaves you with. There will be confliction, anger, pain, disgust and shock – just to name a few. That’s a credit and testament to its effectiveness.
The true test of the documentary is how it plays to the current generation, from people who grew up in the shadow of a national and global tragedy. Does Diana hold the same power or interest? Does her untimely death re-evaluate how we see the Royal family? Has anything changed? The simple answer to that is no – just ask Meghan Markle. But for what it is worth, Diana’s magnetism is a tragic cautionary tale we as a country still haven’t reconciled with.
The Princess is out in cinemas on 1st July.