HBO’s Princess Diana Documentary is Compelling but Incomplete

[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation]

After nearly a half-century, we are still trying to understand Princess Diana.

Diana has fascinated the world since she stepped onto the world stage as Prince Charles’s bride in 1981. She was young, beautiful, and exciting, a breath of fresh air for the stuffy British monarchy. The interest in her wouldn’t recede after the wedding. The enthusiasm increased as she raised her sons, traveled the world, enchanted the global population, and ended her marriage to Charles spectacularly and scandalously. Every second – from her engagement announcement to her world-shaking 1997 death – was scrutinized. You could fill an encyclopedia volume with the words used to describe, defend, and destroy Diana. After 41 years, what else could one say about the Princess of Wales?

The Princess, the new HBO documentary about Diana, wrestles with that question. The answer it comes up with is not to offer one. The 90-minute film features no contemporary voices, people who knew her or thought they did. Instead, Diana’s still-striking image does the talking. It is comprised entirely of archival footage of her life in the public eye. Some footage is familiar, part of her extensive iconography. There is also either rare or never-before-seen footage that offers glimpses into the story behind what we’ve seen countless times before. The film’s only commentary comes from people living through the Diana era in real-time, providing their proto-hot takes on her fascinating life.

While her time in the public eye was short, Diana experienced too much to fit within a 90-minute documentary. That poses another challenge for The Princess: what should it cover, and how? The film spans Diana’s lifetime, but director Ed Perkins cherry-picks significant milestones. He zooms in on Charles and Diana’s fairytale wedding, the births of William and Harry, the “War of the Waleses” in the early ‘90s, and her 1997 death. Perkins zooms past everything else. He sacrifices completion at the altar of brevity, which can be puzzling sometimes.

Princess Diana in the ’80s (Courtesy: HBO/WarnerMedia)

Rather than just rehash familiar moments, Perkins cleverly subverts them with alternate footage. The magic of Charles and Diana’s fairytale wedding washes away as we watch him nearly forget to help her out of their carriage upon arriving at Buckingham Palace. Their first royal tour of Australia in 1981 was a triumph, but seeing Charles glower as crowds cheered Diana’s name, you wouldn’t know it. Perkins lays out plainly with historical footage what took a decade for the world to acknowledge: Charles and Diana were doomed from the beginning.

Why did it take so long to see how ill-suited they were? Diana’s emergence came during great upheaval in the U.K. The Princess juxtaposes Diana with British citizens in economic and civil unrest. (One scene shows a Charles and Diana placard sitting behind a cracked window.) The royal wedding gave a ravaged population a moment of celebration and catharsis to unite behind. In other words, Diana was the public’s hope for the future. 

Princess Diana at the White House in 1996 (Courtesy: HBO/WarnerMedia)

With that context in hand, The Princess re-litigates the media and the public’s role in Diana’s life. It’s easy to blame the tabloid press for Diana’s struggles, watching the paparazzi’s relentless pursuit of her. (A camera crew following Diana to her car before the engagement announcement and then photographers chasing her through an airport a decade later form the documentary’s most damning, upsetting couplet.) However, Perkins acknowledges the uncomfortable complicity in the cottage industry that empowered them. The hypocrisy is startling. People insisted the media leave Charles and Diana alone in one breath and openly judged their actions in the next. They bought newspapers and tell-all books and gathered in pubs to watch Diana’s infamous 1995 Panorama interview. 

It’s an especially tragic “chicken and egg” scenario. Even if the media indirectly pushed Diana to her fate, they were fulfilling a specific demand from the public. If they didn’t care so much, then likely neither would the press. (That says nothing of how Diana and Charles used that interest to their advantage.) The Princess doesn’t fully account for why the public cared for so long (and still does). Diana may have been the British public’s beacon of hope, but hope only goes so far. What’s missing is what sustained her popularity and transformed it into near-deification when she passed. Diana’s modern approach to royal duties, high-profile charity work, and compassionate rapport with the sick are central to her mythos. Their relegation to the background in the film is a missed opportunity to interrogate her long-lasting impact. 

Flowers and mourners outside Kensington Palace in the days following the death of Princess Diana, in London, September 1997 (Courtesy: HBO/WarnerMedia)

The Princess arrives in time for the 25th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, a global pop culture that still resonates. This documentary will be the first introduction to her for a new generation in Britain and beyond. (Assuming they’ve missed the countless news articles, Kristen Stewart’s Oscar-nominated performance in Spencer, or that dreadful Broadway musical.) It is a decent first step. Diana’s image is as stunning as ever; at times, that is enough to entice you. Still, The Princess, even as a modern examination of Diana’s complicated relationship with the media and public, feels incomplete.

The Princess is streaming on HBO Max.

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