'The Princess' HBO documentary: Heartbreaking portrait of Princess Diana's life 25 years after her death

·3 min read

It's been 25 years since the death of Princess Diana and a new HBO documentary, The Princess (streaming on Crave in Canada Aug. 13 at at 8:00 p.m. ET) explores the debate on public fascination and scrutiny of her life, including her battle with the paparazzi.

Director Ed Perkins uses a series of eerie archival footage of Princess Diana’s life, much of it interviews, paparazzi footage, and recorded commentary about her position in the royal family, as a way that raises debate about how the public often criticized the invasive media coverage she received, but also couldn’t stop consuming it.

“All we do is take pictures,” we hear in one voiceover in the film. “The decision to buy the pictures is taken by the picture editors of the world and they buy the pictures so their readers can see them.”

“So at the end of the day, the buck stops with the readers.”

Prince Charles and Princess Diana stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, following their wedding at St. Pauls Cathedral, June 29, 1981.  REUTERS/Stringer
Prince Charles and Princess Diana stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, following their wedding at St. Pauls Cathedral, June 29, 1981. REUTERS/Stringer

Through this historical footage, the documentary sets the stage that Diana’s marriage to Charles was her stepping into an almost impossible situation.

“You’re going to marry somebody who perhaps one day is going to become Queen and you’ve got to choose somebody carefully who could fulfill this particular role, and it’s got to be somebody pretty special,” we hear Prince Charles say.

While this quote in particular puts Charles as the more influential person in a relationship, with Diana, as the documentary points out, she was the one getting all the attention, she was the one people wanted to see. Ultimately, the media frenzy was about her, more so than the Royals generally.

Princess Diana greets well-wishers during her trip to a park in Burnaby, Canada, May 6, 1986. SCANNED FROM NEGATIVE REUTERS/Mike Blake  PN/CMC
Princess Diana greets well-wishers during her trip to a park in Burnaby, Canada, May 6, 1986. SCANNED FROM NEGATIVE REUTERS/Mike Blake PN/CMC

Displaying Diana’s life chronologically, we see some media professionals say that they anticipated that when Diana and Charles married, the media attention would lessen up, but that was a severe miscalculation, as we now know.

“The royal family decided…that they had to be more populist,” one commenter says in The Princess. “They brought the camera in, they encouraged examination of themselves by the media.”

“You can’t turn the paparazzi on and off, as they’re trying to do.”

Diana did at one point call a press conference stating that she intended to limit her public life, but one commenter says it’s, “very Diana to call a press conference to say that she wants to be left alone," adding that she will do “a song and dance act” to get back on they front pages and these actions put her close to being a “monster.”

While The Princess isn't claiming to show us anything new, that we haven't seen or heard before, it paints a particular picture of Diana's life before the 1997 accident in Paris, and the subsequent criticism of the paparazzi chasing her down just before her deadly car crash.

While we question the media ethics in her life, we also need to look in the mirror in terms of how much the public should expect to be able to consume about a celebrity's life.

Closing out the documentary with images of Prince William and Prince Harry at their mother's funeral, The Princess is a heartbreaking collection of images, but what may be worse, even as we look to how Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been covered in the press, and how much content about them is consumed by the public, we haven't exactly learned anything about the consequences of more invasive celebrity culture.