Review: The Princess

Twenty-five years after she perished in a car crash while fleeing paparazzi in Paris, Princess Diana’s overstuffed legacy hardly needs another cinematic boost (that biopic with Kristen Stewart opens in Japan next month), but this HBO documentary does a pretty convincing job of bringing the media—and with it, the general populace—to task for destroying the woman with too much tough love. Assembled by Ed Perkins completely from available footage and unencumbered by voiceover narration and talking head comments, the movie is as pure a distillation of poisoned public image as we’re likely to see, and that’s simply because no other person in the history of celebrity culture has been as doggedly covered as Diana Spencer. 

Though Perkins generally adheres to the chronology, he opens with her death, which conveniently gets that out of the way, thus allowing the viewer to absorb the wildly divergent tone and import of the images as they come. He wisely chooses footage that also plays up the environment in which Diana rose as a public figure, especially the economic doldrums of Britain in the 80s and how her youth and seeming iconoclasm was so appealing to a public that was tired of the dourness of everyday life as embodied by Buckingham Palace. He also focuses on her privilege and how it informed that seeming lack of artfulness in her dealings with both the House of Windsor and the attendant press. Much is made of the 12 year age gap with her husband, who, inevitably perhaps, comes off badly, though the portrait is more sympathetic than it is in The Crown. If anything, the future king seems more like someone who simply received bad advice and was even worse as gauging the media’s propensities than Diana was. Even after marriage, he was winkingly, approvingly portrayed by the press as still reveling in a bachelor’s life, thus pointing up the obvious inherent sexism in the coverage. Invariably, Diana’s disillusionment, first in her marriage, then in her “position,” was conveyed as being “willful” and ungrateful. 

It wasn’t until after the divorce and the revelation that Charles had been continually unfaithful that the public’s sympathy fell on her side, but even here, Jenkins managed to bring in recordings that reveal the media’s real agenda, which was totally exploitative. If they championed Diana’s charity work and progressive mindset, it was all a means to an end, which was to ridicule the monarchy in contrast in order to boost their bottom lines. Throughout The Princess we keep hearing about the “damage” she caused to the royal family, and, for sure, the royals really bring that damage upon themselves, but the media plays it up in such a way as to put more pressure on Diana than she’s capable of withstanding. She died not so much because the press wouldn’t leave her alone, but because by that point there was absolutely nothing and no one left to protect her, including her so-called loyal public. 

Opens Sept. 30 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264). 

The Princess home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 DFD Films Limited/Kent Gavin

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