Pieced together entirely from TV news footage, Princess tells the dark fairytale story of the public life of Diana Spencer.
As such it’s a haunting and gripping documentary portrait of both her and our own times, using images both iconic – the log flume at Thorpe Park, the wedding day dress with its long, cream train, the outfits on the slopes at Klosters – and the utterly mundane chatter of opinion on old TV shows such as Kilroy and Question Time (oh, my, it’s Robin Day!)
It’s a far better way in to the story of Diana, much smarter than that silly recent feature film, Spencer, with Kristin Stewart talking to the peacocks, or indeed any episode of The Crown. The mosaic of media approach practically acknowledges the impossibility of really knowing the truth of this extraordinary, late 20th century story but director Ed Perkins brings us as close as possible to the Diana we knew and still know, a history filtered through news readers, front pages, local news stories and young-looking reporters including Jeremy Paxman, Nicholas Owen, Jenny Bond and Simon McCoy and those once-ubiquitous commentators such as James Whittaker and Ross Benson.
Diana was an industry, a production line, a feeding frenzy over the fabrication of a myth and of our nation’s identity. We were obsessed with her, every day. The news clips are of people in pubs watching the Royal Wedding and cheering, dancing in the fountains in Union jack shorts, or awaiting the birth of William. It’ll be a boy. No, it’ll be a girl. This was news.
“It’s Britain at its best,” they beam at the wedding, as the rest of the film then goes on to shows the tabloids at their worst, and cleverly lingers on Diana’s doe eyes, her beauty, her innocence and Charles’ oafish emotional cluelessness.
What a circus, what a show. You gape and wonder: is this really us? Packed pubs showing the Martin Bashir interview live like it was the football, and Andrew Morton defending his revelatory yet possibly entirely fabricated book. This is a film about a Princess, yes, but also about the media, a beauty and the beast story, the rich and the poor and a nation in love with pomp and a posh girl, and then – how can we ever forget? – united in the most ineffable outpouring of grief and flowers.
It’s like watching a live event, some kind of cruel sport. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And then it’s gone, it’s all over. And life and monarchy are somehow the same, yet forever altered by a Princess who sparkled brighter than the crown jewels.