The Princess, a new documentary on HBO about Princess Diana, follows a mantra that most of us are familiar with (but often disregard): show, don’t tell. The film features no narrator, no interviews, no “royal experts” spinning things into perspective. Instead, the story unspools through news clips and found footage, played in (mostly) chronological order.
“Mostly” is necessary because the documentary starts where Diana’s story tragically ended: in Paris. An unknown person drives by the Ritz, filming the large crowd and cameras that are gathered outside. She speculates excitedly that someone famous is there—not knowing it is the Princess and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. Both would die in a car crash during their trip.
Yet the rest of it stays in order: the next scene shows reporters flanking a young Diana Spencer, asking her to speculate on her engagement. Soon that segues into a snippet from her and Prince Charles’s engagement video: a reporter asks them what interests they have in common. Neither has much to say in response. Then there’s a montage of the royal wedding: the crowds, the street parties, the carriage ride down The Mall. (A selectively chosen clip tells the viewer that their escort is lead commanding officer Andrew Parker Bowles whose wife, Camilla, is friendly with the couple.) When they enter the enclosed walls of Buckingham Palace, both are solemn-faced and don’t make eye contact.
The film moves in a linear fashion through the birth of their children (“Then, less than an hour later, Prince Charles left to play polo—something that most new fathers would hardly dare to suggest,” a TV broadcaster says in a news clip that shows Prince Charles driving off from Kensington Palace right after Prince Harry’s birth), to their subsequent marriage troubles, and their divorce. The viewer has no problem following along with this collaged approach in part because, at this point, most know the main plot points in the acrimonious story of Charles and Diana. But also because there are no gaps: the media exhaustively covered nearly every moment of their entire relationship in real-time, from their engagement in 1980 to their separation in 1992 to Diana’s death in 1997.
There is no new news in The Princess: again, all material used is archival. But the context it provides may be revelatory for some: the film deftly shows the extreme intrusion and scrutiny Diana faced, like when the Wales family is swarmed on a ski slope. Yet it also points out how both Charles and Diana used the media to craft their own narratives, from Andrew Morton’s bombshell biographer Diana: In Her Own Story, for which Diana herself was a source, to Prince Charles’s 1994 ITV documentary. Both also likely tried to manipulate Britain’s notorious tabloids: “This couple are conducting their marital squabbles in the most extraordinary way—in public via the tabloid newspapers they profess to hate,” says one broadcaster during a clip from the 1990s.
Finally, it makes consumers of such media consider our own culpability: in a rehashed interview, a paparazzo explains that he takes pictures of Diana because the tabloids buy them. Tabloids buy them, he explains, because they sell papers: “The end of the day, the buck stops with the readers.”
Then there’s the prescient quote about the whole Charles-Diana ordeal that, decades later, feels like it still very much applies: “Functionally the royal family….has turned itself into something of a branch of the entertainment industry,” a 1990s talking head says. “I’m not sure they’re ever going to recover from it. I think they’re doomed to continue.”
There is no shortage of Princess Diana documentaries out there. In fact, it may be an oversaturated genre. The Princess, however, adds something much-needed to the canon: context.
Originally published in Vogue.com