You will not learn about Diana Spencer’s childhood in The Princess. You won’t hear about her upbringing, see faded photos of her early years, meet her siblings or hear about her parents’ divorce. There is nothing on her education, her time at a finishing school in Switzerland, her employment as a nanny, or how she came to be known as Lady Diana prior to her engagement to Charles Philip Arthur George, the Prince of Wales. We are reminded that the couple first met when she was 16, and that there was a 12 year age gap between them. But leading up to Diana running a gauntlet of reporters and photographers on her way to work, with one journalist doggedly demanding to know whether “they won’t have to wait long” before nuptials are announced, there’s little information about what happened before Ms. Spencer became a household name. You don’t get the cradle, though regrettably, you will get the grave.
And yet The Princess, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival last night (and will be released on HBO later this year), is the only portrait of this still-beloved, still-divisive icon you really need to see. There’s been a renewed interest in Diana’s life and times as a public figure, thanks to The Crown‘s recent season devoted to her integration (or lack thereof) into the royal family and Spencer, the Pablo Larrain/Kristen Stewart drama that imagines her long, dark holiday weekend of the soul at the Queen’s country estate. Now we have filmmaker Ed Perkins’ look back at her ascension from British citizen to world-class stateswoman, which naturally covers the same ground as the former and shares the latter’s desire to reassess her treatment within the royal sphere. (Say what you want about Larrain’s phantasmagoria of movie, it’s definitely an attempt to reclaim Diana’s identity on her behalf — it isn’t called Spencer for nothing.) It’s an extraordinary take on Princess Diana that tells her story through old interviews, photo-op appearances, news reports, chat-show white noise and peripheral found footage regarding her death. But more importantly, it’s the definitive documentary on “Princess Di,” the saint/sinner public persona that was shaped through a thousand tabloid headlines and the lenses of apex-predator paparazzi.
The use of nothing but archival footage to recount Diana’s rise, her perpetual “trial by television” and her fall isn’t a gimmick — it’s a stroke of genius, a jujitsu finishing move on her tormentors. It was the media, after all, that helped coronate her as the “People’s Princess,” showing the world an actual fallible human being living among royals that seemed to treat human behavior like a luxury or a liability. It was the media that documented how the public loved her, sometimes in the most ironic and extreme ways (see: a news interview with a National Front skinhead giddily waiting to get a Charles& Di tattoo on the day of their wedding). It was the media that constantly cut her down, held her under a microscope, blinded her with a spotlight then bitched about her holding a press conference in which she begged to be left alone. And it was the media who declared the Princess of Wales’ love story to be “the stuff that fairy tales are made of” and then become the ogre at her door. They were her judge, jury and yes, executioner.
So while the doc’s decision to re-examine the spectacle that made and broke the woman at the center of it all might not have been politically motivated, it definitely doubles an indictment against a cottage industry — and a nation’s journalistic apparatus at large — that uses their own abundant materials as evidence against them. You get a ringside seat to how Britain’s cultural mouthpieces viewed Diana through a thick lens of sexism, courtesy of some jaw-dropping quotes; one reporter breathlessly recounts how Spencer’s father, uncle and others “have even vouched for her virginity,” while another notes that “like most brides, Lady Diana has lost weight as the day approaches.” The nightly news and the competing dailies turn the dissolution of her marriage into a national soap opera, amplifying every time that Charles was miffed over his charismatic wife effortlessly charming crowds and “stealing” attention away from him. If their cameras could capture Diana’s reactions to her husband’s stiff attempts at public speaking, all the better. No one gave more exquisite side-eye than Spencer.
When competing tell-all books from the House of Windsor hit the market, reporters scrambled to cover the hardbacks being unloaded from vans, with every he-said-she-said volley given Talmudic analysis. Knowing what we now know about Martin Bashir’s infamous interview with Princess Di, it’s hard to view it as a platform for the princess to tell her story in her own words. Yet the public, trained to view every bombshell as urgent, breaking news, brought the country to a standstill the night the conversation aired on television. Every one of the greatest hits of Diana’s story — the straight-outta-Disney wedding, the trip to Australia, the birth of her sons, the dance with Travolta, the visit to a Harlem hospital, the “Camillagate” tapes, the front-page “kiss” from Dodi Fayed — is accented or accompanied by shots of paparazzi clicking away, invading her space, stalking her at every corner. Long before they chased her through the streets of Paris in 1997 (captured here courtesy of footage of tourists who just happened to be passing by the Louvre), they were parasites slowly draining her lifeblood. Look, one pap reasons: They took photos because news editors wanted them, since readers bought papers when they ran them. “So, really,” he says, “the buck stops with the readers.”
In his introduction before the virtual festival premiere, the director said that he was interested in looking at her life in the way it was presented to us, and thinking hard about “the role that we played in all of this.” And to be sure, The Princess does indeed question the ramifications of both elevating someone to that level of fame and being willing to revel in their every flaw. The documentary may reiterate the popular story that Diana was a both a strong woman and a helpless damsel-in-distress, one crushed between centuries-old traditions and contemporary, toxic celebrity culture. But it also asks for accountability, and you can feel a current of anger running just underneath its packaging of yesteryear’s snark and schadenfreude. And as we continue to re-litigate how famous females were treated in the Eighties and Nineties, Perkins’ history of how Di was torn down makes for a hell of an Exhibit A. On a first night of screenings that ran the gamut from highly disappointing (Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World) to the beautifully offbeat (the volcanologists’ valentine Fire of Love), The Princess provided Sundance’s opening evening with a bullseye hit. It may very well be the nonfiction highlight of the fest itself.