The Princess, a new documentary film, is the first re-framing of the Princess Diana story since it was last re-framed, about ten minutes ago, and before it will be re-framed again, probably by Tuesday. We’ve had The Crown recently, and Spencer, and our favourite, Diana: The Musical (‘It’s the Thrilla in Manila but with Diana and Camilla’), and there are several upcoming books, one of which, R is for Revenge Dress, ‘explores the celebrated life of Princess Diana through the alphabet’. To those who say the poor woman should be left to rest in peace, I would say: F is for Fat Chance. But is this the definitive documentary we’ve all been waiting for? Possibly not.
It has superb credentials. It is directed by Ed Perkins, who was Oscar nominated for Black Sheep, and produced by Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugarman). However, in telling the story via contemporaneous archive footage, and therefore through the public lens, without a single talking head or interview, it can’t lay any claim to originality as this technique has been deployed before, most notably by Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy, Diego Maradona). Neither is the historical re-framing insightful. The film merely becomes a time capsule, which is distracting – the parking meters!
Diana, who would now have been 61, is forever frozen at the peak of her powers, like Marilyn Monroe. This is compelling, because we’re all voyeurs at heart, but it doesn’t peel back the layers. It opens at the end, on that fateful night in 1997, with camcorder footage taken by a tourist (I think), who has spotted her car outside the Ritz in Paris. We then spool back to the beginning, when she was a shy 19-year-old nursery-school teacher beset by reporters, and then the engagement interview, where she and Charles struggle to come up with anything they have in common, eventually settling on ‘the outdoors’.
You sometimes clock something you haven’t clocked before. Here, the focus closes in on her face so we can see the way she momentarily and worriedly bites her lip. ‘Don’t do it!’, you want to shout. This often hinges on our foreknowledge of her future. When Andrew Parker Bowles accompanies their carriage after the ‘fairy tale’ wedding and the TV commentator says: ‘The couple have stayed with him and his wife Camilla in Wiltshire, so they’re among friends,’ you do die a little inside.
The film covers all the familiar ground – the births of William and Harry, the increasing estrangement, the affairs, that dim fella James Hewitt, the TV interviews, the Andrew Morton book, the Revenge Dress, the hugging of Aids sufferers and the hounding by the paparazzi, who say as they have always said: ‘We’re just giving the public what they want.’ The doc attempts to indict the media, but can you do that, when you’re using all their material yourself? It’s linear and well put together but it doesn’t try to understand the grip she had and still has on our national psyche. What did she encapsulate? The private versus the public? The search for personal growth? The oscillation between victimhood and empowerment? The upsetting of an institution that expected her to be sphynx-like?
For all that, I would urge you to seek out Hilary Mantel’s essay on the subject. In the meantime, I had been minded to write that there is, at least, no Princess Diana dog bed yet but then I Googled that and discovered there is. It’s pricey, at £48.99, but it does offer ‘royal flair’.