The Princess brilliantly uses archival footage to showcase the media's toxic fascination with Princess Diana

click to enlarge The Princess brilliantly uses archival footage to showcase the media's toxic fascination with Princess Diana
Princess Di via the media's eye.

This month will mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. I vividly remember it, because I had literally just stepped in the door after attending the funeral of a close friend and turned on the TV as the news of the crash of her car in a tunnel in Paris — precipitated by the paparazzi chasing her in pursuit of juicy pix to sell to trashy tabloids — was breaking.

Desperate for some distraction from my own personal — decidedly non-royal — grief, I remained glued to CNN for days, through the announcement of her death and the widespread gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that ensued in the UK. The public reaction of the Brits to her death, mobs of people wailing and sobbing outside Buckingham Palace, absolutely incensed me. I had just buried someone who — to this day — remains the person closest to me who has died. And I thought, "These people didn't know her! They have no idea what it means to lose someone they love! How dare they behave like this!"

In the intervening years, I have become somewhat more generous to the nice people of the UK when I think back to those days in 1997. But if I hadn't already, the stunning HBO documentary The Princess might have prompted a softening of my thoughts on this matter.

Not that I am any fan of the British royal family. Quite the opposite. I do not understand any Americans who valorize them — we fought a war to get rid of this appointed-by-God bullshit — and it seems that even the Brits should see that the institution is a horrific anachronism in the 21st century.

No, the thing is that I now understand that Diana represented, at the barest minimum, a possibility that the British royal family could potentially have modernized, and that her death signaled the end of that. Then, and apparently still. The fact that her second son, Prince Harry, now Duke of Sussex, has followed in her footsteps in absconding from royal life, because he seemingly had no other option if he wanted to retain his sanity, seems proof that whatever legacy Diana might have had remains partly hypothetical. And the current condition of poor Harry might be the best recommendation for this film. Because he is continuing the unfinished smash-the-monarchy work that his mother began.

No matter what happens to the British monarchy in the coming years and decades, The Princess is brilliant. Using nothing but contemporaneous archival footage, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ed Perkins has assembled a portrait of Diana's life in the spotlight that is incendiary, incisive, and transfixing. Starting from early-1980s news footage, from the moment that her engagement to Charles was beginning to be rumored, this is a devastating indictment of celebrity "journalism." Even if you believe that the comings and goings of the British royal family are newsworthy, the way Diana was treated is clearly beyond the pale... and it is also very clearly a harbinger of the appalling celebrity "journalism" that was to come.

Cameras in her face, all the time. Vox pop assessments of her life, and commentators who knew nothing — nothing — offering their nonsensical analysis. After their "fairy tale" wedding in 1981, Diana and Charles would "live happily ever after," supposed experts at the time were sure. How the characterization of Diana in the eyes of the press morphs from "nice" and "shy" early in her public life to "determined and domineering" is beyond cringy and disheartening. The Princess offers an incredibly valuable look back not just at this specific life story, but at how public stories were — and continue to be — shaped by the media. And that doesn't benefit anyone at all: not the famous folk, nor society at large. ♦

Three and a Half Stars The Princess
Not Rated
Directed by Ed Perkins
Streaming on HBO Max

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