Sundance 2022 Review: ‘The Princess’

Perhaps you’ve heard this story. How, once upon a time, a beautiful, young woman—a nanny of all things!—met and married a prince in an incredibly lavish ceremony observed by the whole world. And wasn’t it amazing, dreamy, romantic? The spectacle, the procession, the dress, that girl! Just like a fairy tale, they said. We said. And then the not-so-happily-ever-after followed, and we continued to watch, at least sometimes, wondering, maybe, what’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with her?

But oh, there’s a son! And here’s another one! Splendid. And then things got even worse, and then they were splitting up, sort of, separating, not divorcing, because for some reason his family couldn’t allow that, and, really, it was for the boys, and were we still paying attention? Because there’s another woman and another man in the story now—but which came first, and that’s not how these things go, right? I mean, maybe in our lives, people’s lives, but not in this story, not for them (or forget him, he’s always been sort of odd and definitely not charming), not for her. That’s not how we wanted it to be. Or, actually, all this business about affairs and her feeling trapped sort of maybe makes her more interesting, doesn’t it? Which has always been the case, yes, that she, the seeming outsider, was the most approachable of all of them, that ancient, cold, symbolic family she married into. She’s the most compelling, the one we really loved because those eyes, that voice, that style—and also she had problems we could identify with and she cared a lot and she could express that.

And then they were divorced and she was free of him and his controlling family—great!—and then she was dead, killed in a car crash we never saw, while she and some guy were being chased by a buzzing swarm of paparazzi, trying, as they always had, to catch the latest, most intimate glimpse of her face, her most private expression that would tell us everything we wanted to know, about— 

What did we still want to know? What was it we’d wanted from her? What did she mean, after all?

Maybe you lived through this saga, getting up before dawn to watch the coverage of its beginning and its end. Or maybe you only know part of it. Or you’ve immersed yourself in all the pages and hours of analysis, the told-to biographies and secret histories, as well as the searching, speculating dramatizations of The Queen, The Crown and Spencer. So why, at this point, would you bother to sit down and watch one more documentary about her—unless you’re just a glutton? 

Director Ed Perkins is well aware of your saturation and skepticism, but he doesn’t accept the possibility of your total exhaustion. Or rather, he knows you haven’t yet considered the implications of your own interest. The Princess is what he calls an archive film, constructed in the editing room from thousands of hours of video and audio documenting and analyzing the marriage of Charles and Diana, the most basic materials of their narrative. His choices purposefully avoid the mostly familiar, entangling and enhancing the known with video outtakes and the often passionate and sometimes cruel assessments of royal observers, talk show hosts and ordinary citizens from around the world. There are very few moments of surprise in The Princess (Princess Anne’s stunningly bitchy response to a question about her sister-in-law’s new baby is one), but that’s not really the point. The film’s drama lies, rather, in Perkins’s deft aggregation of the frequently absurd, sometimes pathos-laden, but always authentic images and sounds of people watching and caring—the expressions of affirmation in the street celebrations during the wedding; the constructed melancholy in the coverage of Diana contemplating the Taj Mahal solo; the inevitable phalanxes of slavering photographers and videographers; Diana’s increasingly intentional and savvy manipulation of the media through more and less subtle glances, refusals and riddle-like statements; and, finally, the tearful, even rageful crowds slowly converging on Buckingham Palace, seemingly to mourn some greater coming apart.

Though there are a few moments (as in a hunting sequence) where the editing of the film indulges its own myth-reinforcing metaphors and resonances, The Princess mostly avoids pushing its own commentary on its subjects, letting the footage it frames—its assumptions and claims—raise critical questions. And the film draws no grand conclusions about our persistent, reciprocal participation in an intoxicating and frequently destructive celebrity culture. Instead it presents abundant and provocative evidence supporting a single and singular case. Whether or not we have been caught up in the story (as millions of others here testify that they were), the attention The Princess asks us to bring to its montage of images and dialogue and to the personal act of meaning-making we perform on these make it a worthy and uniquely reflective addition to the vast commentary on Diana’s life and death.

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Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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