By Michele Yeo
August 31st marks a grim anniversary as it will have been 25 years since Princess Diana died in a Paris car crash. Much has been said, speculated, written, and opined about Diana since that fateful night. Now, a new HBO Max/Crave documentary, The Princess looks back at her life and legacy.
Picking up just before Diana and Charles became engaged in 1981 and culminating in her funeral in 1997, the doc is told exclusively through archival footage and news clips from the time. It covers the extreme excitement surrounding their “fairytale” wedding, Diana eclipsing Charles in popularity, her foray into charity work and its impact, the media intrusion into their marriage and of course all the sensationalism and nonstop tabloid coverage surrounding its very public breakdown complete with affairs, explosive interviews, and tell-alls. Diana’s complicated and transactional relationship with the press, and her transition into single life post-divorce is also covered.
The Princess offers no voice over or interviews and therefore doesn’t offer much in the way of insight, context, or any new takes or information on the woman who, at one point, was the most photographed person in the world. Those who were around during her meteoric rise and shocking untimely death won’t learn anything new from the documentary. And while there is something to be said for letting the footage speak for itself without editorialism, those who may not have been old enough to have a full appreciation of the spectacle that was Diana’s life might not get the full scope from The Princess. Those folks also have plenty of pre-existing Diana content from which to choose including last year’s Spencer and the stage play, Diana: The Musical also released last year although we do NOT recommend subjecting yourself to that one. Princess Diana is not unlike Marilyn Monroe, another blonde tragic figure who died too soon in that there seems to be no end to how many pieces of content, both fiction and non-fiction, will be devoted to telling her story. Marilyn will get another re-telling in the upcoming Netflix film Blonde set to stream next month.
What The Princess does do, is remind us of the absolute worldwide media circus that surrounded Diana from the minute she became a member of the British Royal Family. With attention spans so divided now between multiple streaming services, social media platforms, and YouTube, it’s hard to imagine a singular figure commanding that kind of attention ever again. Similar to Michael Jackson, we’ll likely never see a global superstar of this magnitude ever again. And it’s doubtful we’ll ever see such a massive public outpouring of grief and mourning at the death of any public figure as we witnessed 25 years ago.
The Princess also provides its share of cringeworthy moments, reminders of a mercifully bygone time. A newscaster actually says these words in 1981 ahead of Charles and Diana’s wedding, “her father and uncle have vouched for her virginity.” Another newscaster remarks on-air, “Lady Diana has lost weight as the day approaches.” But the cringiest moment comes from Charles himself during he and Diana’s engagement interview. When asked about his first impressions of Diana, the 32-year-old responds, “I remember thinking what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was.” Sadly, “To Catch a Predator” didn’t premiere until years later in 2004. But the comment really does remind us of how young, naive, and inexperienced a 20-year-old Diana was going into a marriage to someone 12 years her senior who is also in line to be the next King of England. Safe to say she was woefully ill-prepared for life in the monarchy.
As a faceless voice remarks in the documentary over famous footage of Diana sitting alone on a bench outside the iconic Taj Mahal while countless cameras snap away, “When you put a modern person in an ancient institution, they will be destroyed. Anyone would be destroyed. But once that institution starts destroying people it’s time to recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with that institution.”