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Review: Sadness is at the heart of the doco ‘The Princess’

It’s been 25 years since Diana, Princess of Wales died, and yet her life and legacy still hold a fascination for us all. There was no doubt something quite remarkable about this woman that transcended the supposed fairytale romance and wedding, as well as the lurid press coverage and disastrous marriage. 

In a new documentary simply titled The Princess, Diana comes back into our lives via video footage and some in-the-field interviews with people who knew her or felt self-important enough to speak about her. 

There is no voice-over, no sit-down interviews with anyone. It is simply an amalgamation of clips that take the audience from her shy beginnings through to her sudden tragic death.

It’s an interesting way of telling a story. There is no one pontificating on her, or offering a perspective based on hindsight. What we see is what actually was broadcast during her life. It’s a reminder of how much most of us were caught up in the allure and mystique of Diana, yet how we never really thought about the consequences of our collective obsession. It lead to the press hounding her in a way that was totally unacceptable, yet tacitly supported by society.  On camera, one journalist defends his industry by saying it’s the public who wanted this stuff – and he was right, we did. 

Some footage you will have seen before, but a good deal of it is from B roll or other sources that may not have been aired at the time. It is remarkable to see almost three decades after her death the bizarre paparazzi behaviour. It still exists, but not to the extent that this one woman was subjected to. It makes for very uncomfortable watching all these years later.  

But of course, without it, we wouldn’t be watching documentaries like this now. It is a very strange situation and one that at the time went too far. 

What was it about Diana that made so many of us want to know everything about her? I guess it was many things. She was really the first glamorous princess of the mass media age. The 80s were a time of excess and massive competition in media, and she was a royal superstar.  At the heart of it all was a fallible human being who transcended her own weaknesses to represent something people needed – a compassionate, beautiful princess who eased the burdens of those she engaged with, and connected with those who were marginalised. 

The Princess doesn’t add anything new to the story, nor does it editorialise too much. Yes, the footage shown tells a narrative that is sensitive to Diana, but it doesn’t shy away from showing her foibles. The documentary is a reminder of the time and the impact that the woman had on her world. 

Diana influenced the monarchy and Britain, but despite the talk at the time of the collapse of the monarchy, also mentioned in the documentary. What is clear 25 years later is that in fact, Diana’s legacy is that she strengthened it. Rather than her death acting as a catalyst for abolition, it patently showed how important the monarchy is to the people of the United Kingdom. What’s more, Diana’s biggest legacy is that, barring any unforeseen disaster, it will be her son who will one day sit on the throne. Furthermore, it was the stoicism and service of that other woman – Queen Elizabeth II who got the nation through its grief and has provided an even greater legacy. 

Really though, the principal emotion that permeates The Princess is sadness. At the heart of the story is a couple who got married, and while she was in love, he was simply doing what he thought was his duty. If Charles had really loved and respected Diana, what a different story this could have been. 

THE PRINCESS

In New Zealand cinemas 4th August 2022

Starring: Princess Diana, Prince Charles, and various others

Duration: 104 minutes 

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