DDuring her lifetime, Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, was known as “the most photographed woman in the world”, sparking a media frenzy that ushered in a new era of stardom. And in the 25 years since her tragic and untimely death at the age of 36, there has been an almost obsessive fixation on the trials, triumphs and tragedy of the Princess’s stifling and very public life as a than royal, providing endless fodder for books, television, film and even a Broadway musical.
That is to say, in life and in death, Diana was under constant scrutiny, an overarching theme of Princess, a new documentary about the royal airs August 13 on HBO. Directed by Ed Perkins, Princess takes a subtle but searing look at Diana’s life in the spotlight using only archival audio and video footage to paint the tale of her time as a royal, from her courtship and her engagement to the age of 19 with 32-year-old Prince Charles and ending with the violent and heartbreaking final moments of his life in a car accident while trying to escape the paparazzi in Paris in 1997.
Because the film deals exclusively with archival footage, including countless media interviews with Diana and the rest of the family, as well as shows about their lives, several moments chronicled in the documentary may be familiar to viewers. But a careful editing of this previously aired material offers new perspective and insight into incidents in Diana’s life we thought we knew it all. Photos of Diana, lingering on her downcast eyes at a polo match, take on more resonance when intercut with the relentless media coverage of the speculated affair between Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles that was happening at the same time. Footage taken by civilians of Diana and her companion Dodi Al-Fayed trying to leave their hotel in Paris is chilling given the context of their deaths later that night.
With that in mind, here are five ways Princess reframes what we know about Diana.
It was believed the media frenzy around Diana would subside after the royal wedding
On speculation that she was engaged to Prince Charles, public scrutiny and a media circus descended on Diana, then a shy 19-year-old kindergarten teacher. In the first images shown in the film, Diana is followed down the street by paparazzi as she tries to get to her home, foreshadowing the relentless media frenzy that will endlessly follow her and eventually lead to her death. Before the wedding, Diana’s appearance and even her weight were frequently discussed in the media. in one particularly prescient clip, a TV presenter polls the public, asking if the press should “fire that poor girl.” In another, a commentator says the pre-wedding public gaze is “the worst that can be thrown at her”, but that it will get “much easier” and there will be a change in the attitude of the press. once she becomes part of the royal family. Unfortunately for Diana, that wouldn’t happen.
Read more: How Princess Diana created a new era of stardom
Diana and Charles barely knew each other when they got engaged
In an awkward and chilling media interview during their 1981 engagement announcement, Charles and Diana are asked what they have in common. They both hemmed and hawed before finally settling uncertainly on sharing a similar sense of humor and affinity for the outdoors. The couple had only dated six months before announcing their engagement, which may explain some of their coldness to each other. It should be noted, however, that in the same interview, when asked if they were in love, while Diana replied, “of course”, Charles sadly quipped, “Whatever it means to love.”
Charles was not happy to be eclipsed in popularity by Diana
There’s no denying that Diana’s youth and charisma brought a different kind of glamor to the royal family, something that was never more apparent than in her first public appearances after her marriage to Charles. Footage from their tour of Australia clearly shows how big of a crowd it is and on several occasions Charles acknowledges its popularity. In one clip, he jokes about the convenience of having two women in order to accommodate large crowds trying to meet Diana. In another, more poignant clip, he recounts his luck not only to get engaged but to marry Diana. While the joke elicits laughs, the real laugh comes after Diana pulls a face in response; as Charles continued his speech, the awkward pause captured after the laugh says it all. “He knows she’s the princess everyone wants to meet,” a media commentator says in the film. “He took a back seat.”
Read more: Why Princess Diana is so hard to get on screen
Princess Anne’s revealing response to Prince William’s birth
While the royal family has a reputation for being reserved, Princess Anne’s abrupt responses to media questions about Diana giving birth to Prince William proved particularly cold. Asked about her sister-in-law while on a trip to New Mexico, she replied, “I don’t know, tell me,” later responding to reports that Diana had a son, “I didn’t know that she had one,” followed by a terse “well.” During Diana’s time as a royal, there were long-running rumors that she and Anne had a rivalry due to being the only princesses in the family during the early years of Diana’s marriage to Charles.
2E03NP3 Diana, Princess of Wales surrounded by police and security as she arrives for a visit to the pediatric AIDS unit at Harlem Hospital in Harlem. New York, United States. February 1989
Photo by Alamy Stock Photo—Credit: parkerphotography / Alamy Stock Photo
Diana has always been criticized
Diana was undeniably always in the public eye – and her every move was subject to criticism. While much of the world was in love with her beauty and personality, she was regularly criticized by the media and the public for her looks, her public and private struggles, her parenthood, and even her humanitarian work.
Some of the film’s most disappointing clips show Diana after the publication of a book about her alleged suicide attempts, while the press dissects her eating disorder issues. In one, Diana is seen trying to protect William and Harry from the paparazzi after picking them up from school, overlaid with audio of a media commentator speaking cruelly about her ability to bring them up well. It’s a moment that has added significance later in the film, as the two boys mourn their mother at her funeral, showing the true cost of living in public.
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