“Petition for the canonisation of Lady Di?” lies Amelie, as she knocks on doors in her Technicolor world, far from the sun-bleached corner shop window of this documentary. But the Princess may as well be Saint Diana – enshrined in pop culture and able to transcend any criticism levelled at her.
Ed Perkins’ The Princess cracks the eggshell of that baffling magnetism – this was a person who, as one embittered reporter remarks within the film, “Called a press conference to tell people to leave her alone.” But for all her privilege, this documentary shows that The People’s Princess was capable of having real human facial expressions, kept some granules of spontaneity despite the rigidity demanded by her role, and really did throw a spanner in the royal works. She shifted the state of the royalty from stagnation to entropy. Occasionally, she even drove her own car. She was unquestionably significant.
The Princess charts Diana’s public life from doe-eyed ingenue to divorced pillar of idolatry, controversy and philanthropy. It also documents the mass grief unleashed by the F Scott Fitzgerald-tragedy of her death. The film has no new interviews or narration. It presents a panoramic, non-judgemental collage of contemporaneous footage, of the subject and her new fam, but also, of the reporters who followed them around and the public who morbidly consumed morsel thrown to them.
A sense of the era, when paparazzi were particularly hungry and the monarchy was losing its mojo, is viscerally evoked with neither nostalgia nor scorn. The weird, washed-out palette of the ’80s and ’90s (did it really look like that? No one remembers) speaks for itself, through vox pops conducted in hairdressers full of ordinary women aping the Princess’ hedgehog-hair, the fags dangling from mouths in pubs, and the BBC English still spoken without irony.
The layering of material is done carefully, with narrative embedded within the images. Charles and Diana’s doomed marriage moves through time and newspaper headlines with the clunky waltz of a forced fairy tale. The supreme discomfort of it all is squirm-inducing. Both are trapped by circumstance – the film acknowledges the sadness of these living anachronisms, existing with the constant presence of their own image reflected at them, while also showing the sickening luxury they inhabit. As such, empathy is cleverly mediated.
Diana’s disastrous attempt to exist as a modern person in an ancient system exposes the flickering obsolescence of the monarchy. Throughout the documentary, press coverage is manipulated, biographies hit the shelves and exclusive interviews are dished out.
The film shows the Royals being repeatedly accused of becoming no more than a branch of the entertainment industry – such criticisms now follow their next generation. But as this string of footage suggests, the monarchy is pure entertainment. They function as a conduit for public catharsis – yet Diana offered something more personal, more dramatic to the British Royal saga.
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Could you get any more beige than a documentary about Diana?
The good kind of beige, of trenchcoats and social commentary.
Offers a kaleidoscope of new perspectives on a worn-out establishment.
Ed Perkins’ archive documentary offers fresh insight into the life and legacy of the People’s Princess.
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