Movie Review: The Princess

The British royal family have been in world headlines, even more so than usual lately, with Queen Elizabeth II’s passing. Having been the longest-serving monarch after reigning some 70 years, there was an outpouring of condolences with many people across the globe memorialising the late Queen for her kindness, gentility and good grace. After a saga involving Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to break from the royal family, the sad news and tributes for the Queen helped those in favour remember why they’ve become so emotionally invested. Having finally taken to the throne after an act that’s hard to follow, all eyes will be on Prince Charles, now King Charles III, when he’s officially crowned in May 2023.

Having been the subject of The Crown and films such as Spencer, renewed interest in the royal family household has made the timing of The Princess documentary quite perfect… maybe too perfect. Coming at a time when Charles is being sworn in with the British royals on the cusp of a new generation, it pays to look back at everything that happened to get us to this point. This comprehensive documentary from Ed Perkins covers Diana’s introduction to the media until her funeral. “The People’s Princess” would have been a more accurate title but comes to represent the story from the very agency accused of influencing events leading to her and Dodi Al Fayed’s infamous car accident and resulting deaths.

Instead of guiding viewers with an authoritative voice-over to serve as an overarching commentary on Diana’s life from age 19, Perkins opts to take a step back to allow the extensive archive footage to do the talking. Testament to just how much footage of the royal family exists, specifically of Princess Diana, the far-reaching documentary chronicles her eventful journey from bashful unknown youth to world-renowned goodwill ambassador. There’s not much you may not already know if you’ve been following the story for decades but having it so beautifully edited together, gives The Princess a seamless and spontaneous feel.

This immersive quality offers audiences a chance to relive the life and times of the adored late princess, who went from being Britain’s darling to a national media obsession only to direct her constant attention towards charity work across the globe. Princess Diana stole the limelight from Prince Charles, casting an enigmatic air to her real-life “rags-to-riches” Cinderella fairy tale. Hounded by the paparazzi, working through a messy divorce in the tabloids and trying to raise her boys William and Harry, the pressure of being a royal in the public eye led to some dramatic shifts. Yet, through it all Diana’s noble, kind and loving spirit seemed to survive the pressure, able to preserve her quiet charms, unaffected poise and unassuming beauty.

the princess film

“Mirror, Mirror on the newsstand…”

Edited as if channel-hopping through the years and happening to watch the most eye-opening footage and reporting on turning points, The Princess glides as if unwinding in real-time. Instead of narration, Perkins composes a soundtrack of press and interview speculation from the time. Weaving in and out of key interviews between journalists, commentators and the royals themselves, sound bites colour each scene with an emotive score to provide a greater sense of continuity and emotional subtext. While there’s obviously a great deal of sway in being able to decide which archive footage makes the final cut and how it’s all laced together, The Princess still presents a sense of balance, purity and restraint in its execution.

Offering some nostalgic pangs based on the bygone era, the subject’s tragic tale and the surreal motion of living through it all over again, The Princess captures the zeitgeist without drawing too much attention to itself. The documentary chronicle relays classic elements from Diana’s biography but also uses its edit and commentary to echo themes relating to one’s right to privacy, the divide between civilian and royal, the relationship between the monarch and its people as well as the media circus and its role in servicing celebrity obsession.

For those unfamiliar with Diana’s saga, this documentary serves as a brilliant way to play catch up, offering the highlights and back page speculation through the ages whilst retaining the essence of the late princess. While her most loyal fans may have seen it all before at some stage, stitching everything together to form one start-to-finish story does hold appeal with a fresh context and new perspective. The 1 hour 44 minute running time does however seem overlong, probably even more so for those who are familiar with the Diana-Charles saga.

The Princess doesn’t really offer anything revelatory or new to the conversation. It’s success is in its succinct storytelling, well-versed condensation of Diana’s royal biography and its fluidity as a lively visual character portrait and nostalgic retrospective. The stream of news media consciousness, classic storylines, timely themes and fixation with a celebrity-turned-saint makes it buoyant and entertaining. Yet, its propensity to dig up the past ahead of King Charles III’s inauguration is questionable in light of the documentary’s elevation of Diana’s living memory. Offering a seemingly matter-of-fact perspective, this vantage point and the film’s timing does seem rather pointed in raising dormant issues relating to the royal family in a time of flux.

The bottom line: Vivid