In an ordinary American house on a late August evening in 1997, seven friends are sitting at a table playing cards. One of them is filming the others with his new camcorder, and we watch them joking with each other – about the game, but also the television news broadcast flickering in the background.
Diana, Princess of Wales has been injured in a car crash in Paris, and the men watch the report while laughing and rolling their eyes, as if discussing a bad soap opera’s latest plot twist. Then a headline appears on screen – Princess Diana Dead – and in a heartbeat, the mood changes to frightened silence. Realisation belatedly dawns: it wasn’t a soap opera at all.
The Princess, a new documentary which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, attempts to streamline the episodic scandal and clatter of Diana’s adult life into a single coherent portrait. Director Ed Perkins takes the same approach that worked so well in Asif Kapadia’s Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona: build the entire thing from archive footage alone, and let the pictures (and the juxtapositions between them) speak for themselves.
It’s a strategy that works up to a point. Unavoidably, many of the clips and images of Diana herself are extremely familiar, and have been relentlessly fracked for meaning since the second it was shot. The Australian tour, the White House visit, fractious exchanges in official interviews alongside Charles, the games of cat and mouse with paparazzi at Klosters: there isn’t a fresh angle to be had on any of this stuff, which leaves pivotal sequences feeling like start-of-the-episode recaps on an expensive TV series. (Not a soap, but still.)
More interesting and fruitful are the pictures and words of the people watching her: the crowds, the huddles of royal correspondents, the pundits trying to gauge the significance of every twist and turn in real time, and that card game on the other side of the world, which gives the film its most powerful moment.
Perkins and his editors Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira are good at using contemporary commentary for ironic effect: the long-lens cameras will vanish as soon as she’s engaged, someone confidently predicts – and manage to sell the idea of Diana’s life as a sort of national psychodrama, during which Britain’s relationships with its Royal family, its media and its own self-image were seismically realigned. In 1981, pubs teem with revellers who have come to toast the royal wedding on the big screen: 14 years later they’re back, pints and wine glasses in hand, for the interview with Martin Bashir.
The Princess tells us nothing we don’t already know, but there’s bracing value in seeing it crisply spelled out.
Cert tbc, 106 min. In cinemas now