‘The Princess’: HBO’s mash-up of old Diana footage tells us nothing

While well-edited, the collection of clips with no context or narration ends up seeming pointless, and rather hypocritical.

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Prince Charles and Diana attend a dinner in London in 1982.

Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We’re approaching the 25th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death in a horrific car crash at the entrance to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, when the paparazzi were pursuing Diana’s car and Diana’s driver, Henri Paul, crashed into a wall. Diana, Paul, and Diana’s boyfriend Dodi Fayed were killed, and two young princes named Harry and William were left without a mother.

The 36-year-old Princess of Wales was arguably the most famous and most photographed woman in the world in 1997, and her story has been told again and again and again—and we’ll no doubt see an avalanche of retrospectives in the coming weeks.

Among them: the HBO documentary “The Princess,” which covers Diana’s life from her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981 through her death and the memorials some 16 years later, with director Ed Perkins employing what he calls an “immersive unmediated” approach to the story, “constructed solely from contemporaneous archive from the time.” What does this mean? There’s no narrator, no interviews, no dramatic re-creations of events—simply an admittedly well-edited but ultimately unenlightening mash-up of archival footage, person-on-the-street interviews from the time, snippets from chat shows and audio and video clips of various newscasters and pundits.

We’re left wondering: What. Is. The. Point.

‘The Princess’


HBO presents a documentary directed by Ed Perkins. No MPAA rating. Running time: 109 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO and HBO Max.

Once again, we’re reminded that the marriage of Charles and Diana was doomed from the start and that there was an unholy media frenzy surrounding their courtship, their marriage, the ugly rifts between them and their lives after divorce. We’re suitably disgusted by clips of Diana’s boys running away from the swarm of photographers while they’re trying to enjoy a day at the beach, or the moment when Diana literally has to push a camera out of the way when it comes within inches of a young child with AIDS she is holding in her arms.

With one of the most intrusive scores of the year pounding home every moment, “The Princess” offers no context as we hear the voices of unnamed commentators gushing about the royal marriage as a much-needed lift for Britain during the tumultuous 1980s, and we see TV talk show clips in which some pundits and audience members fiercely defend Diana and say she was horribly mistreated by Charles and the royal family and the media, while others deride her as a narcissistic attention-seeker who knew exactly what she was getting into, never loved Charles and was destroying the monarchy.

And so it goes, and so it goes. The documentary hits all the Wikipedia points, from the supposed fairy-tale marriage that captivated much of the world through the revelations of Diana’s struggles with bulimia and wanting to harm herself, and Charles’ indifference to Diana while he remained devoted to Camilla Parker Bowles. In clip after clip when they’re in public together, Charles comes across as arrogant and chilly, while Diana is often looking at the ground, as if she wishes she could be anywhere else. Much of “The Princess” focuses on the paparazzi and how they tortured Diana by hounding her every waking moment—but the filmmakers are using that same footage here. The hypocrisy is blinding.

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