The first clue that “The Princess” will not be your standard-issue Diana Spencer documentary is that the director is Ed Perkins. Perkins’s last film, “Tell Me Who I Am” (2019), which was also his first feature, told a painful true story of identical twins whose lives were upended by abuse and memory loss. While its perspective was compassionate, its revelations were presented in a way that could best be called unsparing.
There are few revelations in this picture, which chronicles Diana’s life from right before the announcement of her engagement to Prince Charles up until her death in a car accident in Paris in 1997. Actually, the movie, made up entirely of archival footage, begins with careening video taken while she and her companion, the businessman Dodi Fayed, were fleeing paparazzi on the evening of her death.
This is a harrowing movie that depends on our collective hindsight to underscore its manifold and particular ironies. For instance, in joint interviews with Prince Charles shortly after the marriage, Princess Diana seems maybe very reserved — or maybe depressed. As it turns out, it was depression. Viewing this now makes one shudder.
Perkins doesn’t editorialize overtly; the movie’s editing and a tense music score by Martin Phipps (with additional music by Rutger Hoedemaekers) do that work, a subtle but ultimately indignant skewering of celebrity culture.
One of the picture’s final images is of a young Prince Harry at his mother’s funeral; the pain in his eyes is moving. But it indirectly reminds us that Diana’s life and death have taught the world precisely nothing.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on HBO and HBO Max.