• Film

Docs: “The Princess” Forces Viewers to Ponder the Weight of Constant Observance

Nonfiction films which trade in biography arguably have the ability to avoid a good number of the narrative pitfalls that frequently bedevil fictionalized biopics. They’re less frequently compromised by the active participation of their subjects, for starters. And things which might feel like clichés within a scripted format can often be given additional depth and clarifying context.

But documentaries which assay a single life, particularly that of a celebrity, still rarely ask a viewer to jointly confront and reflect upon their own feelings about the story they are ostensibly being told as forthrightly as The Princess, an intimate, immersive and thought-provoking look at not only the life of the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, but also the spectacle of constant observance that surrounded her. Debuting on HBO on Saturday, August 13, timed to coincide with the same month of the 25th anniversary of her tragic death, the movie is a fittingly poignant tribute. At once elegant and elegiac, it identifies and honors its subject’s unique qualities, in addition to serving as a larger meditation on social perspectives, both evolved and unchanged, on mental health issues and public/private boundaries.

Directed by Ed Perkins, an Academy Award short subject nominee for 2018’s Black Sheep, the movie unfolds in a collagist style, anchored by exacting editing and a tack-sharp sense of purpose. Crafted from loads of archival footage, The Princess forgoes any contemporary interviews or voiceover narration whatsoever. The result — charting Prince Charles and Diana’s relationship from engagement through dissolution and beyond, as the latter upends royal family dynamics through press coverage “victories” rooted in her innate touch with common folks — is a portrait of friction, and ultimately war, between a modern person and an ancient institution.


The movie opens with a pinch of mad-dash paparazzi pursuit, but then quickly jumps back in time, adhering to a mostly chronological approach. Footage of a shy, 19-year-old Diana being peppered with questions by a reporter as she walks the street underscores the significance of the 12-year age gap between she and Charles. In short order, however, viewers are thrown into the pomp and circumstance of the pair’s engagement and nuptials (especially wild is a clip which shows even skinheads getting Charles and Diana tattoos, so caught up are they in the moment of nationalistic fervor). When an announcer narrating the wedding day festivities deems it “the stuff of which fairytales are made,” it summons to mind the ironic resting place of “happily ever after,” which is then literalized too, by the same commentator. At the end, on a tele-magazine show, a very self-assured talking head predicts that, now that the wedding is over, “all this telephoto lens business will stop.”

It doesn’t, of course, as depicted by the film’s pivot, around the 20-minute mark, into birth watch. William (born in June 1982) and Harry (born in September 1984) are welcomed by a rapturous British public, and in between is the young royal couple’s tour of Australia in 1983, where Diana blossoms into a full-fledged star.

Marital drift (and attendant pick-a-side public discourse) follows. And the chaos of 1992 and ’93, which sees the release of both Andrew Morton’s book detailing Diana’s deep unhappiness and suicide attempts, plus “love tapes” from each party, is interesting to behold in comparison to similar modern-day stories, when outed affairs seem blasé and shared darkness and vulnerability is largely praised as a way to help others. This period also marks the beginning, by multiple parties, of the full-saturation, tactical use of airing personal business in public via the very tabloids that the royal family profess to hate.

Perkins has explored shared memory previously — chiefly in the harrowing Tell Me Who I Am, in which a man helps his twin brother recreate lost memories of their childhood following a motorcycle accident, but initially omits serial sexual abuse at the hands of their mother, only to later circle back and unpack the collective trauma. The Princess would on the surface seem to be not quite as dramatic. After all, audiences know how this story ends.

But Perkins forces viewers to look in the mirror, and ponder notions of complicity and societal focus. Under his guidance, editors Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira and their teams, working from an indescribably massive archive, do a great job of taking a well-worn story and making it fresh and new. Some of their choices communicate symbolism (footage of a baby William sucking on Diana’s finger transitions into a fowl felled by buckshot), but The Princess is in large measure an exercise in masterful implicative storytelling. It does this through well-placed juxtaposition and overlay, sometimes using radio call-in show or other audio to bleed over the edge of a scene.

Mostly, though, The Princess is just incredibly well curated. It’s impossible not to let one’s eyes linger on Diana in the background and find swollen meaning when Charles jokes at a public event, “I’ve decided it would’ve been much easier to have two wives, to cover both sides of the street,” and then, later, points out the close-up of a video camera lens to William as the family is being photographed by saying, “Look, they’re people in there, look at them — they’re trapped.”

Abetting this fine technical package, composer Martin Phipps contributes a great score (with additional music from Rutger Hoedemaekers) which drives the story forward with commingled melancholy, foreboding and bittersweet rumination over what might have been. Perkins uses this music but doesn’t lean on it to the point of collapse, also deploying smartly placed silences.

The Princess isn’t utterly exhaustive (for example, it leaves out the hubbub over Diana opting to omit the word “obey” from her vows, which was a big deal at the time), but that is of course not its aim. It is, despite its name and very specific focus, a film which uses the life of Princess Diana, in all its turbulence and tragedy, as a lens through which to examine society and ask what if anything has changed.


Among the moments that most linger is footage of a harried Diana, post-divorce, pausing to take flowers from a little girl well-wisher while still using a covered tennis racket to fend off paparazzi photos. It seems a reflexively human moment, and yet could be characterized by others (as with additional actions in the film) as posed and insincere. It’s a moment which, with reflection, serves as a deflating reminder that even this example of the crushing pressure of constant public surveillance is not enough to automatically generate empathy. Like beauty, fault too is in the eye of the beholder.