The spike in media re-examination of the Princess of Wales has become a little much, don’t we think? After Kristen Stewart’s admittedly glorious portrayal in last year’s Spencer, the abysmal Diana: The Musical and more documentaries than one can count, we might want to give it a rest. Yet new HBO doc The Princess manages to tread at least a little new territory as it tells the same story. Director Ed Perkins (Tell Me Who I Am) might even be the first filmmaker to succesfully portray a cogent transition from the cultural figurehead of Lady Di to the historical Princess of Wales. Still, to nail it wholly would require a much more thorough delve into a country that allowed Diana’s ill-fated celebrity to reach critical mass.
The Princess is thankfully free of talking head interviews, which gives Perkins the space to make the decidedly more clever move of presenting Diana’s greatest hits through archival footage. But there’s less of her than one might expect. A big chunk of this documentary isn’t even about the woman, but rather the court of public opinion. Even more interestingly, The Princess opens with footage of various ‘80s riots, which creates a novel foundation for the rest of the documentary: national doubt in the form of economic recession, the last breaths of colonial-esque wars and Thatcherism. A “woman of the people” emerges in Diana. It’s populism, but it has a crown.
The British Royal Family remains interesting to a select few, unless we’re talking drama. Yet, The Princess keeps a grip on its own charisma, even as it descends into duller, well-trod tabloid gossip. Perkins’ film could have gone deeper into the socio-economic factors that built Diana’s mythos, but he steers the ship into the safer waters of accountability in the wake of her sudden death. I also wish he had more footage of Princess Anne hanging around the College of Santa Fe, where he features her learning of Prince William’s birth as she exits a gala at the Greer Garson Theater as part of a “goodwill tour.” Yup, that abandoned campus is part of the Princess Di story, folks.
While The Princess loses sight of its original thesis of a trembling nation searching for a new North Star, it is a fitting entry-level watch. Perkins helps bring a little more sense to things by which American brains seem flustered. Those who already know anything likely won’t learn anything new, but the biggest royal-skeptic in your life might still be enchanted by the narrative.
+Great pacing; archival triumph
-Last act loses focus
Directed by Perkins
HBO Max, NR, 109 min