New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Sundance 2022 Review: The Princess

Our fascination with seemingly fragile, angelic blondes will never truly fade, will it? Combine that with a very much still going strong 80s and 90s nostalgia, and you end up with the second film about the late Princess Diana in as many years, and that’s not including her depiction on “The Crown” and the short-lived theatrical musical.

No wonder the market already feels oversaturated. After all, what is left to say about one of the most highly scrutinized figures in the world, whose life has been gone over to a microscopic degree? For Ed Perkins, the director of the Sundance doc “The Princess,” which consists solely of archival footage of Diana’s life and times, it’s less about what there is to say, more a question of just why we all felt such a compulsive need to look in the first place.

Then again, the footage speaks for itself. Like many a well-known – some would say notorious – public personality, there are basic facts about Diana we tend to forget, such as just how young she really was when she first stepped into the spotlight in 1981. A mere 19-year-old teenager when she first became engaged to 32-year-old Charles, she gazes at the camera with that undeniable sparkle that perhaps only Marilyn Monroe could match, a face that seems made for a camera to gaze upon.

Perkins is also a brilliant curator, carefully selecting and timing his footage to show just how she was practically groomed from the start, a pretty young thing who met her future husband at 16 and was brought into the family to appease a country in the midst of a recession and social unrest, and already widely and overtly questioning just what use the monarchy had in the modern world. Enter Diana, chosen as an acceptable match and future Queen who would bring love to the royal family again, with some of her relatives openly vouching for her virginity.

It’s heartbreaking and stomach-churning in equal measure, and not only due to our knowledge of how things will only spiral from there. The truly ironic thing is how well the documentary refuses to comment or add any sort of spoken or title card context, yet manages to capture the deceased Princess while only using her public facade, even if it has all the benefits of hindsight. 

Films such as “Spencer” would have us see her as a generically fragile free spirit who only yearned for the simple things, but “The Princess” manages to show Diana’s life beyond her exquisite golden cage, and just how impossible it was to escape. Like us all, she was a walking contradiction, devoted to the idea of being a good wife and mother until she wasn’t, yet always a strong woman determined to fight and who ultimately lost, a far more terrifying idea than that of a mere tragic soul who was far too pure for our world.

As the documentary depicts her, this Diana truly is a fighter who the monarchy feared right up until her death at age 36. To view the footage is not just to see a deeply emotional, expressive woman who seemed to speak what was on her mind even when she was determined to be silent, but to see those who watched her, and had no reservations whatsoever about casting judgment. Sometimes it’s shockingly kind, sometimes it’s horribly malicious, but always it’s an indictment of us, and how we so often thoughtlessly, actively empower those who would drive a woman to an early grave.

Grade: B+

from A Reel Of One’s Own

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