The Princess by Ed Perkins, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kent Gavin.

The Princess Review: Diana Doc a Riveting Archival Feat

Sundance 2022

/
9 mins read

The Princess
(UK, 104 min.)
Dir. Ed Perkins
Programme: Premieres (World Premiere)

 

A chorus of camera shutters clicks eerily throughout The Princess. Not since Asif Kapadia’s Amy has the public gaze come so sharply under scrutiny. Director Ed Perkins (Black Sheep) constructs the ill-fated fairy tale of Diana Spencer—the Princess of Wales, the People’s Princess, England’s Rose, etc., etc.—in an all-archival examination of a woman who was both made and destroyed by the media. Devotees of the Diana Cinematic Universe will especially find The Princess a fascinating study of Diana’s life on levels both macro and micro. So too will fans eager to see how brilliantly actors like Kristen Stewart and Emma Corrin inhabit Diana’s skin and soul.

Perkins isn’t making the first documentary about Diana Spencer and he knows it, but The Princess nevertheless asserts itself as a worthy addition to the top shelf of the Royal Family collection. It’s a probing and masterfully assembled feature that briskly weaves through Diana’s briefly tumultuous time on earth. With razor-sharp precision, it flips the paparazzi’s gaze back on the viewer. On one hand, it’s a standalone case study in media sensationalism. On the other, it’s an astute essay about institutions that refuse to change.

 

Diana and the Gnats

It would be impossible to make a story about the Princess of Wales without the paparazzi’s presence. The shutterbugs whir like gnats throughout The Princess as Perkins begins with the familiar image of a teenage Diana scurrying from her shared flat to her compact car. The young woman bashfully, but politely, swats away the questions that journalists ask her. A little boy makes faces for the camera as he trails Spencer, foreshadowing the garish spectacle that will be her public life.

So follows the whirlwind romance with Prince Charles and the awkward TV interview between the Royal couple—dramatized note-perfectly on The Crown—in which journalists pressed the lovebirds about the suitability of their match. They both fumble while answering questions about their mutual interests and settle on a love for outdoor sports, which reveals how little they had in common or how little Prince Charles actually worked. Likely both.

 

Love and Marriage

The swiftness with which The Princess propels the viewer through the fairy tale romance is startling. In the documentary, as in life, Charles and Diana are walking the aisle sooner than one can blink. It’s enough time, however, to rally the masses for one of Britain’s biggest parties. Perkins’ assembles the ultimate supercut of Royal Wedding videos by observing revellers who took to the streets in celebration. Atop the images, pundits noodle about spectacle and excess. Other commentators—a mix of experts and commoners—note the joy of seeing so many Brits unite in celebration. The footage observes a change in the air for the monarchy: people seem rejuvenated by the fresh blood.

The honeymoon, as we know, doesn’t last. Home-wrecker Camilla Parker Bowles gradually enters the frame, and The Princess evokes the tabloid soap opera that was Charles and Diana’s marriage. With nary a word of retrospective commentary, though, Perkins builds towards this inevitable dramatic turn by assembling the quick rise of Diana’s public image, her role in reigniting the Royal Family’s relevance, and her finesse at swaying public opinion. Charles, meanwhile, quibbles in public addresses that he really needs two wives to do the job.

The Princess inevitably focuses heavily on the public dissolution of Diana’s marriage with Charles. Perkins’ interest, however, is the hypocrisy of the public that craved salacious details yet decried publicity generated by the feud. Photographers mob Diana at her gym. People on talk shows, meanwhile, speculate that a Princess doesn’t need public exercise facilities. As the actions by the mob of photographers escalate from a chase to a hunt, The Princess underscores the public appetite that feeds upon A-grade blood. People make narratives about lives of which they know only through headlines generated to sell papers.

 

Royal Rumble

It’s an act of observing the observers as shots and reverse shots play one paparazzo against another. A gawker on the ski hill, adorned with so many onlookers that Diana’s trip down the slopes resembles an Olympic race, asks the media to turn the camera away. Other photogs speculate about Diana’s intentions as she looks towards them while sunbathing. They debate whether she sees them, or if she wants them to see her. She ultimately pulls her chaise lounge away from view.

The editing by Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira navigates the sheer volume of media coverage with thrilling surgical precision. Expertly paced to capture and convey the feeding frenzy of media flashbulbs, The Princess considers our perverse fascination with celebrity, while also evoking the sense of violation the tabloids create. Pundits note in voiceover that Diana played the media well. It’s hard to disagree with the footage that Perkins et al assemble. The doc explores the power of the spotlight through Diana Spencer. It can be a tool for good, such as when she campaigns against landmines and the doc cuts to Tony Blair in parliament announcing a ban on landmines, or hugs an AIDS patient and invites the world to open its arms. Ditto the little black dress with which she one-upped Camilla—but there’s always a noble/petty interplay between the images.

 

The Power of Familiarity

The masterstroke of the editing, however, comes on the night of Diana’s death. The film cuts not to footage on the scene of the deadly 1997 car crash. Instead, Perkins offers footage of a group of gay men playing cards with the telly in the background. As their interest flickers between the game and the broadcast, news drops that Diana has died. The men assemble, hushed around the television and gripped with shock and grief.

The film ends with the collective grief and anger that swelled into an unprecedented media-fuelled hysteria. As onlookers throw murder charges to the media and public opinion sways against the Queen’s decision to hold the traditional stiff upper lip, The Princess sees in Diana’s death a turner point in history.

Free from speculation or retrospective myth-making, the immersive Princess benefits from the familiarity of its images. There is no new stone to uncover, but this effort is the most concise and compelling documentary consideration. There is also the familiarity of a young boy, Harry, who shakes hands with the people laying flowers in memory of his late mum. With nary a title card or contemporary comment, the doc evokes a sense of history repeating itself as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle deal with many of the same challenges that were his mother’s downfall. Perkins doesn’t even need to show images of Harry’s adult life to paint Diana’s death as a cautionary tale. If the archives of The Princess feel familiar, their recognizable aura underscores the film’s point: images have deadly power.

 

The Princess premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and airs on HBO later this year.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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