5 Takeaways From HBO’s Princess Diana Documentary

During her lifetime, Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, was famously “the most photographed woman in the world,” inciting a media frenzy that set the blueprint for a new era of celebrity. And in the 25 years since her tragic and untimely death at the age of 36, there’s been an almost obsessive fixation on the trials, triumphs, and tragedy of the princess’ stifling and very public life as a royal, providing endless fodder for books, television, film, and even a Broadway musical.

This is to say, Diana was under constant scrutiny in life and death. It has always been a major theme. The Princess HBO will air a documentary about August 13, 2012, the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s death. Ed Perkins directs. The Princess takes a subtle but searing look at Diana’s life in the spotlight by solely using archival audio and video footage to depict the narrative of her time as a royal, starting from her whirlwind courtship and engagement at the age of 19 to a 32-year-old Prince Charles and ending with the violent and heartbreaking final moments of her life in a car accident while trying to escape the paparazzi in Paris in 1997.

Many moments captured in the documentary are likely to be familiar because it is exclusively archival footage. But a careful edit of this previously aired material offers fresh perspective and insights around incidents in Diana’s life we thought we knew all about. Diana’s photos, looking at her sad eyes as she watches a polo match with her friend Dodi Al-Fayed, have more impact when they are juxtaposed with relentless media coverage on the suspected affair between Charles and Camilla. It is chilling to see Diana with Dodi al-Fayed, her friend and civilian cameraman as she attempts to walk out of Paris Hotel. This was in light of the fact that they would die later that evening.

Consider these five ideas. The PrincessThis reframes our knowledge about Diana.

According to some, the media frenzy over Diana would slow down after the royal marriage.

Public scrutiny began to descend upon Diana, a shy 19 year-old nursery school teacher, after speculations that she was engaged. Early footage of Diana walking down the street with the paparazzi as she tries to reach her home is shown. It foreshadows the media frenzy that would continue to follow her, eventually leading to her death. Ahead of the wedding, Diana’s appearance and even her weight were discussed frequently in the media; in one particularly prescient clip, a television presenter takes a poll of the audience, asking if the press should “lay off this poor girl.” In another, a commentator says that the public gaze ahead of the wedding is “the worst that could be thrown at her,” but that it will get “much easier” and that there would be a change in the attitude of the press once she became a part of the royal family. This would not happen for Diana.

Learn More The New Era of Celebrity: How Princess Diana Made It Possible

Charles and Diana had never met each other before their engagement.

Charles and Diana answer a series of awkward questions in an unfunny media interview. They were both asked about their shared interests at the 1981 engagement announcement. After much hemming and hawing, they finally settled on having a common sense of humor as well as an affinity for outdoor activities. They had been together for just six months when they announced their engagement. This might explain their shared coldness. It’s worth noting however, that in the same interview, when asked if they were in love, while Diana responded, “of course,” Charles infamously quipped: “Whatever in love means.”

Diana eclipsed Charles in popularity and Charles didn’t like it

There’s no denying that Diana’s youth and charisma brought a different kind of glamour to the royal family, something that was never more apparent than during her early public appearances after her marriage to Charles. Their tour to Australia clearly shows that she is a magnet for the masses. Charles also acknowledges her popularity on several occasions. One clip shows him laughing about how convenient it is to have two wives, in order to be able to host large groups of people trying to meet Diana. Another, poignant clip features him praising his fortune in getting married to and marrying Diana. The joke gets a lot of laughs, but the true laughter is when Diana responds. While Charles continues his speech and Charles continues to make a funny face, the awkward silence after Diana’s laughter is captured speaks volumes. “He knows it’s the princess everyone wants to meet,” one media commentator says in the film. “He’s taken a backseat.”

Learn More It’s so hard to get Princess Diana right onscreen

Princess Anne’s telling response about the birth of Prince William

While the royal family has had a reputation for being reserved, Princess Anne’s brusque responses to media inquiries about Diana giving birth to Prince William came off as particularly cold. Asked about her sister-in-law while on a trip to New Mexico, she said, “I don’t know, you tell me,” later responding to reports that Diana had a son, “I didn’t know she had one,” then following it up with a laconic, “good.” During Diana’s time as a royal, there were longtime 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 of Wales is surrounded and protected by police as she arrives at Harlem Hospital for a visit. New York City USA. Feb 1989

Alamy Stock Photo—Credit: parkerphotography / Alamy Stock Photo

Diana was constantly under criticism

Diana was undeniably always in the public eye—and her every move was up for critique. Although Diana was loved by many for her beautiful persona and beauty, the media and public regularly criticized her for her appearance, public and private struggles and parenting as well as her humanitarian work.

Some of the film’s most sobering clips show Diana after a book is published about her alleged suicide attempts, while the press is dissecting her issues with an eating disorder. One clip shows Diana trying to protect Harry and William from the paparazzi, after she picks them up at school. It is overlaid by audio from a media commentator talking cruelly about their ability to be parents well. It’s a moment that holds extra meaning later in the film, as both boys are seen mourning their mother at her funeral, showing the true cost of a life in the public.

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