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The Princess review – Diana seen through a new kaleidoscopic lens

Ed Perkins' compelling but elusive documentary pieces together a troubled life using footage captured by the press, sans narration

An omnipresent question hangs over The Princess before the film even starts: how many more times will the story of Princess Diana be excavated before she is truly laid to rest? Ed Perkins’ documentary arrives after Netflix’s distasteful Diana: The Musical and Pablo Larraín’s elegant Spencer both put Diana in the spotlight to polarising receptions. The Princess, however, takes a unique approach to Diana and her legacy, piecing together an archive of media clippings to show how the British public came to see her through the eyes of the press.

Without a narrator, The Princess relies only on chronological footage – a scrapbook of Diana’s appearances, headlines, and scandals. From news coverage to tabloid headlines, the documentary presents the information as it was shown and told at the time. Beginning with a babyfaced nineteen-year-old Diana announcing her engagement to Prince Charles and concluding with a country in mourning after the tragedy of her death, this rehashing paints a portrait of the cruel and invasive microscope that Diana was placed under as her virginity, weight, and worth became endless topics of debate. All this, however, we already knew.

The Princess is most compelling not when it is laser-focused on Diana but when the camera is turned to the British public. It is here the documentary does what all good documentaries do: investigate the proposed topic beyond the expected borders. Home video and street interviews reveal how the adoration for Diana eventually manifested resentment for the press, who many believed were to blame for the death. These fleeting moments are by far the most revolutionary thing The Princess has to offer.

While the traditional narration and talking heads are absent from this archive-reliant documentary, there is still a narrative summoned from Perkins’ direction, alongside Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira’s riveting visual editing. In one sequence of organised footage, Charles tells William to look through the viewfinder of a camera at the paparazzi gazing back at them. “Look at the people in there… trapped,” Charles tells his son, followed by a frame of Diana alone in the shot. The insinuation is obvious and cutting in its presentation, though layered in meaning.

There is an ecosystem of royal subjects, press interest and public consumption where one feeds off the other. In showing this, Perkins isn’t subtle, yet the absence of narration prevents a nostalgic introspection that too heavily weighs on singularly personal accounts. The Princess is elusive but rigorous, a demonstration of the saturation of Diana’s existence in the media, showcasing a nauseating level of footage of a modern woman trapped in an ancient institution.

The Princess was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival London 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 30 June.

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