Between Spencer and the latest season of The Crown, there’s been no paucity of content on the Princess of Wales recently. And coming into this wave of narrative storytelling is Ed Perkins’ haunting documentary, The Princess, which recounts Diana’s very public life as a member of the British royal family. But unlike previous documentaries, of which there are many, The Princess is pieced together exclusively using archival footage in its original form. The result is a curious exercise is truth seeking through cinema, reliant on the often-unreliable narrator that is the media. This dichotomy is an interesting foray into Perkins’ examination of history, but also calls into question whether he made use of the cinematic art form to its fullest extent. In the end, this is certainly an interesting, if not emotionally blunted piece of documentary filmmaking.
Devoid of any added narration or recent interviews, The Princess doesn’t offer any ground-breaking revelations about the royal family that hasn’t already been revealed to the world. The film essentially splices together footage from newscasts and interviews, as they were originally presented to the world. Mirroring the media frenzy that really began when Diana became engaged to Prince Charles, the film follows every major event and scandal that plagued her tumultuous, and ultimately tragic, years in public service.
A Minimalist’s Approach To Documentary Filmmaking
What’s impressive about The Princess is that it serves as an almost untainted time capsule of historical events, as presented and perceived by the general media. In addition to clips from newscasts and relevant live programming, there are countless videos from paparazzi and regular citizens supplementing the film’s collation of lived memories. Anything we’re seeing is a true depiction of how the world saw Princess Diana at the time, with no additional commentary or added content. But this commitment to truth, in a way, also forces one to question what actually separates The Princess from a series of unedited clips spliced together. Could this not have been a string of clips found in the backrooms of the BBC, waiting for a producer to edit in the verbal sensibilities of a local broadcaster? Moreover, is the film overly minimalistic?
And while this is undoubtedly a reductive manner of thinking, and pays no attention to the editing and sound design which elevates the film’s narrative tendencies, this idea doesn’t come without merit. Perkins is almost too reductive and hands-off in his overall stylistic approach and the lack of any added material does make the film feel hollow at times. The thinly veiled score is likely intentional and helps with its goal of being an unintrusive literation of the truth, but is almost too thin and halters some of its more tragic and emotional beats.
Painting The Media As Both A Friend And Foe
And while the film’s central character is Princess Diana, the actual narrative is more of an indictment of the media, rather than the Princess’ own personal story. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Perkins is mainly interested in exposing the oftentimes savage nature of paparazzi practices, which is a double-edged sword in this particular instance. The Princess obviously relies on material that was often obtained by paparazzi reporters, but also uses this material to criticize the trade itself. The overarching idea of how the British royal family has utilized, and in some ways, relied on the gossip-filled media to stay relevant also hinges in the background.
This idea that the media is an obvious foe, while at the same time, also an ally to both the filmmaker and the royal family slowly seeps into the collective as the film progresses. Perkins doesn’t hammer this point with a lot of force, which is likely intentional and in keeping with his minimalistic approach. This provides a sense of subtlety to such a strong message, which captures the complex relationship between state and media that continues to be relevant to this very day. Perhaps if Perkins deviated away from only using archival footage, a grander message would’ve been delivered, as opposed to one that feels rather muted.
Conclusion: The Princess
The Princess isn’t perfect and often lacks the emotional punch that one might expect from a documentary of this nature, but Perkins’ uniquely minimalistic approach certainly makes it an interesting experience nonetheless. The film, unfortunately, falters in its overly simplistic style of narration, which was well-intentioned, but not entirely affecting for a figure as storied as the Princess of Wales.
The Princess premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2022.
Watch The Princess
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