‘The Princess’ Review: An Addictive Documentary About Princess Diana

“The Princess” is a perfectly timed, compulsively watchable once-over-lightly documentary. It’s a chronicle of Princess Diana culled entirely from television news footage and other public records. In other words, this isn’t an intimate portrait of the Princess of Wales that ”takes us closer to the subject” through an archival jamboree of home movies, eyebrow-raising long-view commentary, and investigative coups. The Diana we see in “The Princess” is the one we’ve always seen, the one we’ve been watching for 40 years, 25 of them since her death in 1997. Since we’ve never stopped watching her, “The Princess,” coming on the heels of “Spencer,” Season 4 of “The Crown,” and the short-lived musical “Diana,” may sound like one Diana document too many. Yet after all those dramatic treatments, it’s galvanizing to see the real story laid out exactly as it happened — or, more precisely, as it happened and as it was presented to the public, those being, quite often, two very different things.

That most of the world was obsessed with Diana is a story unto itself, and the why of that is incredibly complicated. Many who continue to worship her will say, quite simply, that Diana was a victim of the Royal Family and of the coldness of her marriage to Prince Charles, and that once she emerged from the morass of the monarchy, she was revealed to be not just the lovely charismatic rock star of royalty we always knew her to be but an icon of empathy — a woman who hugged AIDS sufferers when most politicians wouldn’t go near them, who used her platform to conjure a glow of hope to the citizens of the world. Yet even if you accept that Diana really was “the people’s princess,” what did it mean, in the end, that the woman who did all this, who offered that global embrace, was a princess? Can someone really be Mother Teresa and the first Kardashian at the same time?

“The Princess” takes us back to the moment when Diana Spencer, daughter of British nobility, came into the public spotlight early in 1981, the time of her engagement to Prince Charles. The fascination of it is that we now experience the entire saga quite differently, knowing what we know (and knowing how much we didn’t know then). “The Princess,” assembled with mesmerizing fluidity by director Ed Perkins and his editors, Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira, is a documentary with no narrator, and no interviews that aren’t part of the period footage. Yet there’s commentary throughout: We hear the news media’s version of events, and that’s revealing because the story, as the media presents it, keeps skewing in different ways.

Here’s Diana being pursued on the street by reporters when they first get wind of the engagement — just a girl, really, but her face is already lit up with celebrity. Here’s the cringe-worthy scene of Diana and Charles being asked, by a television interviewer, what they have in common, the two patching together an answer like petty criminals who can barely get their stories straight. Here’s the wedding, with Diana in that dress of dresses (the train as long as a train), the thronged British masses moved to ecstasy, as if this were giving them their empire back. Here are Diana and Charles on their tour of Australia, where Diana-mania first reared its head and Charles, openly sullen that she and not he was now the center of attention, responded by making tone-deaf passive-aggressive public “jokes” (“It would have been easier to have two wives, to cover both sides of the street”). Here’s Charles, even after William was born, continuing to live the life of a bachelor, playing polo and going off on his jaunts. And here’s the tabloid industry devoted to his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, culminating in their leaked love tape. Here’s Diana hobnobbing on her own, with one telling shot of Graydon Carter (who, at Vanity Fair, did more than anyone to lend our fascination with the Royals a tony credibility).

There are three distinct phases to how we took in the saga of Diana. The first was what people like to call “the fairy tale.” That’s when we looked at Charles and Diana together and thought they were a genuine romantic couple in an ingenue-who-kissed-the-frog way. Charles’ very diffidence was part of it; he was the quintessence of stodgy British entitlement, but the myth was that Diana was the one who’d melted him. I still remember watching the wedding (it felt as momentous as the moon landing), and how it seemed to symbolize a new paradigm: a return, after the counterculture, to a hunger for “traditional values.” It was a piece of transcendent showbiz that gave a liftoff to the Reagan/Thatcher ’80s.

The second phase was, of course, the soap opera. Charles, the frog who was humanized by his adoring younger wife, turned out to be a scoundrel who’d been carrying on an affair with another member of the Royal Family. The devoutness of his refusal to give up his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles was only highlighted by the revelations of Diana’s agony: her bulimia, her self-harm, the affairs she carried on in what felt like a state of desperation — the whole perception that her problems, in all their severity, were symptoms of neglect, abetted by how the Royal Family, including Charles, were jealous of the adoring gaze the media gave her. The split between Diana and the Royals was seismic, mythological: a breakdown of the Old World Order. You could say that Charles and his family represented the slow fade of the 19th century and Diana the dawn of the 21st. (Guess who was going to win that one?)

But it’s the third phase of the saga — the view we now hold — that’s the most intriguing and devastating. For it reveals, in essence, that both the earlier phases were lies. The fairy tale? There was no fairy tale. There was a projection, by the people of the world, of romantic-fairy-tale nostalgia onto two people who were playing the part as if they were in a movie (maybe one by Disney). And the soap opera? The tale of a royal love that withered through betrayal and coldness? That, in the end, was a lie as well. For the truth is that Charles and Diana had an arranged marriage, as royal marriages often had been, but this was the first royal marriage for the Age of Warhol — a media hologram that transcended reality. The truth is that Di and Charles had never loved each other, had barely known each other when they got married, and that the misery was built into this charade from the start.

Diana was only 20 the day she got married (Charles was 32), so she had a right to be innocent, but a question lingers: What did she think she was getting herself into? Long before Charles publicly betrayed her, wasn’t she essentially complicit in joining a marriage that was, at heart, a piece of national political theater? It’s hard to say what, exactly, Diana wanted, but what she got was an adoration and fame that no one, including herself, could have planned for. “The Princess” shows us how she upstaged Charles, first without trying to and then deliberately, and how the two of them used the media to play out their war. Yet it’s part of the crown-jewels-meets-tabloid karma of Diana that when we see the BBC interview she did with Martin Bashir, lashing out at her royal tormenters, she was never more charismatic, never more on point, never more Diana. The suffering became part of her mystique, and in the end it was elevated, by tragedy, into a kind of martyrdom.

The documentary shows us the army of paparazzi who attached themselves, like permanent sleazy barnacles, to Diana. And though she certainly cultivated the media glare, it would be insane to suggest that she — or anyone — thrived on this level of intrusion. It was obscene. But, of course, to say that it was “the paparazzi” or “the tabloids” who were intruding is to tell another lie. They intruded on behalf of us, the rabid consumers of all things Diana. We’re the ones who turned her into a fairy tale, we’re the ones who turned her falling apart into another fairy tale, and we’re the ones who, to this day, never ask how worshipping someone who’s sitting on top of the world might shove all of us a little further down.

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