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28 June 2022

The Princess is a radical new take on the very familiar story of Diana Spencer

Documentarian Ed Perkins shifts the focus away from the royals’ story to examine the people who helped create it: us.

By David Sexton

The chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole and share in the action,” Aristotle advises. Asif Kapadia’s brilliant trilogy of documentaries about crash-and-burn stars, Senna (2010), Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019), pioneered a new way of presenting a life, using archive footage without a guiding voiceover or the opinions of talking heads. Instead, the narrative is powered along by our foreknowledge of the triumph and disaster to come, and the investment and irony that creates.

The Princess, directed by Ed Perkins (Tell Me Who I Am, Black Sheep), applies this method to the life of Princess Diana – from the news of her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981 to her death in 1997 – with even greater discipline. Yet another telling of this familiar tale, so recently reprocessed in The Crown and Pablo Larrain’s barmy horror show Spencer, then? The Princess, though, is better than these, and far more radical than it first appears, shifting the focus of the story away from the protagonists to those who observed and perhaps helped create it: the consumers of this drama, the people the paparazzi were working for. As it might be, the chorus. Us.

The film offers no groundbreaking new interviews or previously unseen footage. The commentary appears only as part of the ongoing story. None of the opinions we hear are credited either, quite an extreme decision, putting anonymous voices on a par with those that are perfectly recognisable. Christopher Hitchens, ridiculing the People’s Princess mourners, is treated no differently from a loyal skinhead waiting to get a Charles and Di tattoo.

The film begins at the end, that last night in Paris, with footage shot by Australian tourists who happened to be driving around near the Louvre, gradually realising what they were seeing. The same distancing technique reappears when we see a group of American men playing cards, initially joking about the news of the crash breaking on CNN, until it is reported she has died.

Otherwise, though, it is strictly chronological, deftly taking us through the big beats, the most familiar footage, all of it transfigured and ironised by what we now know. Here they are, the engaged couple, being deferentially asked what they have in common. “Gracious, what a difficult question! What do you think we’ve got in common?” says Charles, ever the hopeless Eeyore, turning the pressure on to Diana. “Lots of things, really,” she tries.

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All the contemporaneous commentary sounds so odd, so remote and unknowing now. We are assured that Diana’s so sweet “her father, her uncle Lord Fermoy and others have even vouched for her virginity”; we’re told with frank approval that, like most brides, she has lost weight as the day approaches. But then no less disconcerting are the faces of the crowds, utterly agog, singing and dancing, involved in a way that’s difficult for us to grasp now – perhaps because of their ultimate disillusionment about the marriage, and the institution of the monarchy it was supposed to revive and perpetuate.

There’s that Australian tour when Diana was adulated and Charles relegated, the expression on his face so sour, spoiled and self-pitying. After the birth of Harry, Charles leaves immediately to play polo, watched fondly by Camilla. Stacks of Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story are unloaded from a van. The Squidgygate tapes emerge. The couple announce their separation. Diana gives the Panorama interview to Martin Bashir, under circumstances we now know to be a con, delivering her definitive performance nonetheless. “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” She takes to good works and becomes “Humanitarian of the Year”. It is enthusiastically forecast that she may turn out to be “the best thing to have happened to the monarchy in centuries”,  after the Australian tour. What the film actually portrays, however, is dissolution, the breaking of trust.

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Austere as it may be, The Princess is highly directed, skilfully edited. All selection is thesis-driven, and the film does occasionally indulge in over-symbolic imagery: pheasants blasted out of the sky, dropping down dead, just as in Spencer; a train wreck; flames. Yet, for such a familiar story, The Princess is in its way quite the revelation, not so much of Diana herself but of the way we were then, and where we are now.

“The Princess” is in cinemas for a one night only special screening on June 30. Find participating venues at Altitude.Film

[See also: Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is a bone-headed reassessment of Princess Diana]

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness