‘The Princess’ Review: Chilling Princess Diana Doc Turns Tables on Media Consumption and Complicity

Ed Perkins' remarkable film eschews many of the trappings we've come to associate with the modern documentary, and is all the better for it.
The Princess documentary Diana
"The Princess"

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film will start streaming on HBO and HBO Max on Saturday, August 13.

There are no talking heads in “The Princess.” There are no graphs or charts or diagrams or maps. There are no chyrons to tell us dates or names or places. There are plenty of voices, all of them nameless, all of them freely allowed to share their thoughts on a person they (likely) never met. There is plenty of video, some of it shot by everyday people, some by professional news organizations, some of it by paparazzi. People wink and smile and scream, gasp and yell and point fingers. “Is that her?” they whisper. It’s surely someone important, they say. And there: It is her. Princess Diana. And also, somehow, even as we watch her walk across the screen or play with her kids or grimace through a press conference or ever-so-slightly move her chaise lounge away from prying pap eyes, it’s not her. Not at all.

Ed Perkins’ remarkable documentary “The Princess” eschews many of the trappings we’ve come to associate with the modern documentary — again, there are no talking heads in the film, no little bits of snazzy knowledge, nothing to contextualize it beyond our own broad knowledge of the dearly departed princess — and Perkins instead relies on a wealth of contemporaneous archival footage to weave his story. The effect is, at first, jarring: The film opens inside a car as a group of friends wheel around Paris at night. The footage predates things like iPhones and Instagram and TikTok, but the effect is the same, an immediacy to the material that feels a bit too personal. As they zip through the city, they alight on The Ritz, beset by paparazzi and lookie-loos and just people everywhere. Is that her at the center of it all?

And, suddenly, based on your knowledge of Princess Diana — presumably not narrow, not if you are watching such an ambitious documentary — it comes into focus. Paris. The Ritz. Nighttime. Paparazzi swarming. Oh.

From there, Perkins rewinds, opting to tell the majority of “The Princess” through a distinct timeline. We again meet Diana mere days before she’s to be engaged to Prince Charles (or, as the hordes of journalists who surround the then-nanny’s house intimate and ask, perhaps she’s already engaged to him?) and follow her through her adult life in the royal family. Given that Diana met Charles when she was just 19, that’s nearly all of her adult life. Perkins and editors Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira ably weave together a wealth of footage, zipping between personal video like the kind that opens the film, to news reports, chat shows, man-on-the-street interviews, pap shots, and seemingly sanctioned sequences of royal life.

In retrospect, knowing all that we know about Diana — and, as the film reminds us from the very start, knowing how it all ends — it’s impossible not to attempt to contextualize what we are seeing. Is Diana grimacing here, during a televised interview with Charles about their upcoming nuptials? Is Charles’ light stroking of her hand creepy or romantic? Is this photo shoot emblematic of the distance between Diana and her in-laws, or is everyone just bored waiting for the photographer to snap the shot? Without the influx of talking heads and other bits of opinion and information, the audience is forced to confront their own judgements.

Perkins, however, doesn’t entirely snip out other voices. While “The Princess” features a wealth of interview footage with both Diana and Charles — and yes, that infamous “Panorama” interview is here, as are many others that are likely not as familiar to non-British audiences — it also features frequent voiceover from an array of nameless, faceless chatterboxes. By aural quality alone, we can guess at a few identities, surely some newscasters and journalists, but there are others, too, maybe the everyday people Perkins often shows, either recorded in the audience at a variety of talk shows or right there on the street, a news camera shoved in their face to ask what they think about Diana. The effect is ingenious and chilling: Everyone has an equal stake in talking about Diana, everyone’s voice counts, everyone can say whatever the hell they want. Isn’t that the problem? Hasn’t that always been the problem?

The film is not without its judgements, though many of them feel entirely internal (not including Martin Phipps’ score, which does often set tones that can feel leading to the audience). The immersion of it all helps, the constant clicking of cameras, all the shots of paparazzi swarming Diana wherever she went, the prying questions on all manner of topics. And yet, even as audiences might judge what’s happening — good God, those paparazzi would just not let the woman rest! — Perkins has already implicated them too. You’re watching it, after all. You’re still watching it.

Which is perhaps why Perkins also exhibits something of an obsession with the paparazzi that stalked Diana for so long. They’re there from the start, hordes of them waiting for her like prey outside The Ritz, all of it leading somewhere horrible. While many of the most outwardly emotional sequences in the film that don’t focus explicitly on Diana — like a number of moments that follow regular people with even a fleeting interest in “The People’s Princess” — the ones that really rankle immerse us with a variety of paparazzi. There they are, bemoaning her covered carriage that took her to her wedding, or grinning outside her gym as they scale walls and build platforms to get a peek at her, running through airports as she begs them to stop snapping, only ever focused on one thing and seemingly not caring about her in the slightest.

As the film builds to its logical, horrible conclusion, Perkins settles more squarely on everyday people watching Diana from the outside, joking and playing cards just hours after Diana’s tragic final accident. Yeah, yeah, sure she’s injured. Oh, yeah, go ahead and arrest those paps who were following. What good TV! What incredible coverage! And then, the gut shot. Finally, it’s time to turn away, even if it’s already too late. But you knew that already.

Grade: A-

“The Princess” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. HBO and HBO Max will debut it in 2022.

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