It’s been 25 years since the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But the late royal has lived long in the public’s imagination, inspiring fictional portrayals in Spencer, The Crown, a Broadway musical, and now a new HBO Max documentary. Titled The Princess, Ed Perkins’s film explores her life and legacy through stitched-together archival audio and video recordings. Starting with her 1981 engagement to Prince Charles, it shows her so-called fairy-tale courtship, their scandal-wrought marriage, the birth of William and Harry, their bitter divorce, and her untimely death in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997.
For those who lived through that time, The Princess may not offer any startling new revelations, considering it only uses previously aired footage. However, in the wake of Harry and Meghan stepping down due to an onslaught of negative press, the movie shows just how much the public enjoyed picking apart Diana. The Princess explores how despite her best attempts at managing and even courting the spotlight, Diana was often at the mercy of the monarchy, the press, and the cruel court of public opinion.
“I’m very aware that this story has been told very widely before. I think it’s fair to say this is one of the most widely told stories across the storytelling genres ever,” director Perkins told IndieWire at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where the film initially premiered. “I felt very strongly that the perspective that hadn’t really been explored before wasn’t necessarily trying to get inside Diana’s head. I wanted to try to do something different. The question that really interested me was, what does this story tell us about ourselves? What is our relationship to not just monarch but celebrity? What was our role and perhaps our complicity in this tragic tale?
“We are trying to allow space in the film for audiences to bring their own hindsights into the story,” Perkins added. “We really tried with this story to not include the moments that everyone has already seen many, many times over the years.”
For younger viewers—or those just needing a refresher on Diana’s story—here are some key takeaways from the film.
Charles was 12 years Diana’s senior.
When Diana and Charles’s marriage began to fall apart, many citizens surmised that their huge age gap had to have been a factor. Charles was 28 years old when he met the 16-year-old Diana, the daughter of an aristocratic family who he thought was “amusing and attractive.” At the time, he was dating Diana’s sister Sarah, but that quickly fizzled out. He and Diana got engaged when she was only 20, but it’s hard to imagine anybody romanticizing their relationship were it to take place today.
Diana and Charles barely knew each other.
Though the press often portrayed their relationship as the stuff of fairy tales—a young woman melts the heart of a stuffy royal—their early interviews together were icy and awkward. In one clip, neither of them could come up with what they had in common beyond a vague love of music and the outdoors. In another, they scraped together an answer for what Charles’s favorite childhood toy was. Unsurprisingly, viewers later learned that it was likely just a marriage of convenience for Charles, and the pair had gone on just 13 dates before the wedding.
Charles was jealous that the public adored Diana.
The Princess does not paint a flattering portrait of Charles. In one audio clip, a viewer theorizes that Charles began to despise Diana because of how much the public fawned over her. In one notable clip, he joked at a dinner that everyone told him how “lucky” he was to be engaged to her, and not the other way around.
Charles was bitter he couldn’t marry Camilla.
It may feel confounding that Charles even married Diana at all, given how long he carried on an affair with his friend Camilla Parker Bowles. But The Princess reminds us that Camilla was not seen as a suitable match for him because she had been married before and was considered too “experienced.”
Public opinion was deeply divided over Diana.
The Princess shows that almost everything Diana did was up for debate on talk shows. While there were certainly many people who defended her, there were also plenty of others who always had something cruel to say in response. They said it was her fault for not keeping Charles invested in her, for example, while another said she was “a sick mind” who “likes to be bloody watched” by the paparazzi.
Despite the affair, the general public still thought Charles was fit to rule.
At the time, many citizens seemed quick to forgive Charles for his many faults, from acting like a bachelor while Diana cared for the kids to his very public affair with Camilla. That opinion has changed a lot since Diana’s death and Charles and Camilla’s 2005 wedding, however. According to a 2016 poll, only one-fourth of the respondents wanted to see Charles on the throne, and more than half said they wanted him to pass it on to William.
Diana gave a speech asking to be left alone by the press.
Coverage of Diana was always intense, but it worsened when she announced her separation from Charles in 1992. As a result, at a 1993 charity event, Diana said she was withdrawing a lot more from public life. “I was not aware of how overwhelming that [press] attention would become, nor the extent to which it would affect both my public duties and personal life, in a manner that’s been hard to bear,” she said, adding that her focus would be on raising William and Harry.
Dodi Al-Fayed was still engaged when he and Diana began their whirlwind romance.
Diana and Charles divorced in 1996, and Diana began a monthlong romance with billionaire Dodi Al-Fayed in July 1997. It’s a small detail that often gets overshadowed due to their August 1997 deaths, but The Princess notes that while Dodi was courting Diana, he wasn’t actually single. Model Kelly Fisher alleged that Dodi left her for Diana after they got engaged; she filed a breach of contract suit against him, but dropped it after his death.
The police arrested the paparazzi who pursued her.
Paparazzi doggedly pursued Dodi and Diana everywhere they went, and their chauffeur was attempting to lose the paparazzi in Paris when their car crashed. Nine photographers were charged with manslaughter, but the charges were thrown out in 2002. According to The Guardian, only three photographers were convicted of invasion of privacy, and they were each fined just one euro in 2006.
But per Time, Diana’s death did lead to changes in the industry. Privacy laws were passed, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) strengthened its Editor’s Code of Practice, and the royals announced they would pursue legal action against photographers using giant telephoto lens to snap photos of them in private, which many often did with Diana. “These days, picture desks will ask photographers and newspapers will ask agencies certain questions about celebrity photos; the circumstances of how the pictures were taken, where the photographer was standing, what lens they were taken on,” Daily Mirror managing editor Ian Down told Time. “This process didn’t necessarily start immediately after Diana’s death, but evolved because of it.”
But in the wake of the harassment that Harry and Meghan faced, The Princess also asks us to question whether things have really improved after Diana’s death. It’s “obviously much better than it was in the ’90s,” an anonymous source close to the palace said to Time. But there are still “some things that haven’t changed as much as people think.”
The Princess documentary premieres on HBO Max on Saturday, August 13.
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