Aug. 31 is the 25th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. Even without knowing that, you likely wouldn’t need to be told who’s the subject of the HBO documentary “The Princess.” It debuts Saturday night. Diana wasn’t just on a first-name basis with the world. She was on a job-title basis, too. Elizabeth is the Queen. Elvis is the King. Diana is the Princess.
The standard approach that high-profile books and documentaries take to Diana and the British Royal Family is inside out, with revelations from palace staff, friends, hangers-on, the royals themselves: people ostensibly in the know. “The Princess” does the reverse. It’s outside in. Instead of retrospective chin-pulling and talking-head interviews with participants and experts, we get a constant stream of archival photos, headlines, news footage, audio. The stream commences with the announcement of Diana’s engagement to Prince Charles, in 1981, and ends with her funeral.
“The Princess” is the rare portrait in which the frame gets nearly as much attention as what’s inside it. This makes sense. Diana was a media sensation from the moment of her engagement (she was just 19). “Now that she’s a member of the royal family,” a commentator confidently declares once she’s married, “I think all this telephoto lens business will stop.” Beware of confident commentators.
“The Princess” gives pretty much equal time to media and sensation alike. This makes a much-told story fresher than it might otherwise be. It also makes the story even more unsettling. One reason Diana stayed a media sensation was her also being a quick study. “The Princess of Wales is the most aware person in the world when it comes to photographers,” we hear a photojournalist say, circa 1996. One detects in his voice respect and resentment both. Was that awareness calculation or instinct — and does it even matter? The question can also be asked about the several instances we see of Diana’s remarkable ability to connect with AIDS patients, deprived children, victims of land mines.
Many voices are heard from in passing, many faces seen. None are identified. We recognize the famous ones, of course: Ronald Reagan, John Travolta, Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, two British prime ministers, John Major and Tony Blair, Oprah. That range of references tells you something right there. Many more voices and faces belong to people on the street. That’s the democracy of celebrity: Everyone’s vote has equal weight, even if no one’s vote really counts.
“The Princess” doesn’t have a voice-over. This is key. Obviously, the director, Ed Perkins, is in control. The amount of archival research that must have been involved is mind boggling. Where did they ever come up with the home video of a group of American guys having a card game while in the background the TV is tuned to CNN as bulletins about the fatal car crash are reported? Or the home video taken by a couple in Paris who pass by the Ritz just as Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed, were leaving that fatal night?
That clip is how “The Princess” begins. The rest of the documentary is more or less in chronological order. It epitomizes how the documentary can make the familiar surprising. There’s lots of stuff you’d expect. Diana wears hat after hat after hat (what is it about royalty and millinery?). There’s also lots you wouldn’t. Charles, in an astonishing moment, holds up the viewfinder of a video camera for a toddler Prince William to see through and says, “Look at the people in there, trapped.”
So, yes, Perkins is very much in control, but the illusion “The Princess” sustains is that no one is. What we’re seeing feels like a kind of news feed. No larger judgments are offered, though Charles comes off far worse than Diana does. (What a strange combination of the suave and ungainly Charles was.) It’s only 17 minutes into the film, and Charles and Diana’s wedding day, when a news announcer refers to someone named “Andrew Parker Bowles,” the officer in charge of the wedding carriage escort, and “his wife, Camilla.”
Not quite halfway into “The Princess” the couple separate. It’s 1992. Whenever Charles and Diana are shown together there’s a basic uncomfortableness between them. Maybe the documentary has stacked the deck — but in light of the outcome any stacking, if that’s what it is, would appear justified. Their relationship was an increasingly unworkable combination of something so traditional as to seem all but extinct, an arranged marriage, and something ravenously contemporary, a nonstop media event. The former was a product of Charles’s status, the latter of Diana’s sheer star power. That status insured he’d “win.” That power meant it would be a Pyrrhic victory.
Diana’s story is less a set of events or even personalities than a kind of climate, a climate of celebrity. Anyone back then with access to pretty much any news medium lived in that climate. Insofar as Diana remains a touchstone of celebrity culture — like Marilyn and Elvis and Michael Jackson (is dying young a requirement of that condition?) — we all still live in that climate, her climate.
This outside-in approach makes for a sense of low-grade disorientation. That’s true even for viewers who know their Diana-iana, who can nod knowingly at references to “the Dimbleby interview” (with Charles) or “the Bashir interview” (with Diana) or “the Morton book” (about Diana). For anyone much under 40, “The Princess” will likely feel a bit like a roller coaster ride. Yet that sensation adds to the film’s not-so-low-grade fascination. It also makes for an accurate reflection of what the experience of that climate was like back then. Certainly it was for those of us on the outside — and, who knows, maybe even more so for those of them on the inside? “It’s very Diana, isn’t it,” a commentator remarks, “to call a press conference to say she wanted to be left alone.”
Again and again, “The Princess” shows phalanxes of paparazzi, their fat black lenses trained on Diana. The guns of Navarone should look so threatening. Again and again we see newsstands awash in screaming tabloid headlines —broadsheet headlines, too. Most damning is the telephoto footage of Diana, sunbathing or swimming or otherwise assuming she was enjoying the kind of unbothered privacy that any other person might reasonably expect, but she couldn’t.
Inevitably, viewers will shake their heads and wonder at the awfulness of such treatment. Yet a quarter-century and more later, those of us watching “The Princess” are the ones trying to peek over the paparazzi’s shoulders and staring at the headlines and gaping at the telephoto shots. That, too, is part of the democracy of celebrity: We’re none of us guilty and all of us responsible.
“She has 20, 30, 40 years of active public life ahead of her,” another confident commentator says, when she and Charles divorce, in 1996. “This isn’t the end of something, it’s the beginning of something.”
Were she alive today, Diana would be only 61; and her two sons would still have a mother.
On HBO, Aug. 13, 8-9:50 p.m.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.