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Princess Diana: 25 years after her death, an enduring figure of fixation that needs to end?

The new Princess Diana documentary is out on HBO and in select cinemas
The new Princess Diana documentary is out on HBO and in select cinemas   -   Copyright  Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo/Credit: Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo   -  
By David Mouriquand

It’s been 25 years since Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, died after a tragic car crash in Paris.

Since that fateful night on 31 August 1997, the legacy of “the people’s princess” has continued to resonate, to the extent she has become an enduring icon whose presence in headlines and popular culture has not faded over the years.

Whether it’s the tabloid headlines comparing Meghan Markle’s “Megxit” to Diana’s confrontation with a rigid monarchy, the countless films and TV shows that fictionalise the late royal’s life, or the seemingly endless stockpile of documentaries that keep being released like clockwork, Diana remains a ubiquitous figure of fixation.

The latest in a long line of releases is Ed Perkins’ archival theatrical documentary, The Princess, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of Diana’s death.

Billed as a “visceral submersion” into the life of Princess Diana, from her marriage with Charles and the intrusive glare of the 24-hour news cycle to her untimely death, the film is currently on HBO and enjoying a sporadic rollout in cinemas this week.

It’s tempting to ask whether we actually need another one: after Diana: Her True Story, The Queen, Diana, Diana: 7 Days That Shook the Windsors, The Crown and Spencer – to name but a few – haven’t we heard it all before?

HBO
Poster for 'The Princess'HBO

A Modern Greek tragedy

The Princess does go over old ground, but does a fine job at curating the archival audio and video footage, shrewdly using a treasure trove of material to show to what extent Princess Diana was under constant scrutiny and critique. The film’s most sobering moments include how the press dissected every aspect of her life, from her parenting skills to her eating disorder.

According to Ingrid Seward, Editor-in-Chief of Majesty Magazine and royal biographer, The Princess does distinguish itself from others.

“They’ve put it together very well and it works because it is real footage in real time. All the other documentaries tend to all mould into one. It’s a good example of Diana’s life at the time from her perspective.”

The film has the media and their role in hounding Princess Diana in its visor. Intriguingly, The Princess also feels like it holds up a mirror, and not necessarily in the best of ways. It asks what is wrong with the UK as a country for their obsession and, on a more metatextual level, it shows that as her life was dissected by the media during her living, spectators risk replicating this trend when we can’t seem to get enough of Diana even in death.

“There obviously is a demand, otherwise they wouldn’t be making these films,” says Seward. “She was an icon and she had a very grubby death, and it’s not what we wanted or expected. It’s a bit like a Greek tragedy, and that’s why it’s endured so much.”

Beyond society always keen to mark an anniversary, Seward isn’t so sure that there is an insatiable appetite for more.

“It’s all very media driven, and I don’t know if the public really want another film about Diana,” she comments. “It’s such a commercial opportunity for the media to mark this anniversary - not so much here (in the UK) and much more in Europe, especially in Germany and France. They don’t have a royal family, so I think they rather enjoy looking at ours.”

Trailer for 'The Princess'

Even if there is an ongoing fascination for the global-stage dramas surrounding Britain’s House of Windsor, an institution that some may consider outdated and archaic, perhaps one of the reasons behind the endurance Diana’s legacy in popular culture can be found in human nature – specifically our macabre enjoyment at looking at tragedy all over again.

“There is something in that, and there’s always a fascination with an untimely death,” says Seward. “That’s never going away. It is human nature and there’s always going to be that fascination because Diana’s death was a shock and because she was so young. That will always remain.”

In this regard, there is here a parallel to be drawn with the upcoming Marilyn Monroe film, Blonde, which premieres at the Venice Film Festival next week.

Both Diana and Marilyn were two of the most photographed women on earth during their lives and conspiracy theories around their deaths - both at 36 years old - continue to fascinate. Both women set off media frenzies, were imprisoned by their public image, and their iconic status could be said to have been enhanced through their deaths. 

But could there be a risk of film and TV releases moving away from icon celebrations and into murkier territory, chiefly the exploitation of trauma?

“What I know is that these films don’t benefit the royal family at all,” states Seward. “Imagine if someone made films about your life… The royal family have to keep away from it all and none of them watch any of them because it would drive you mad. It’s damaging for the monarchy, even if The Princess is more damaging to the press, as it shows quite how pushy they were then.”

From victim to feminist icon

New generations who weren’t alive during Princess Diana’s life or her death are constantly discovering her through not only films and series but on smaller screens. Instagram and Twitter feeds sell the image of Diana as something of a feminist icon, a symbol of rebellion and outspokenness that is gradually becoming ossified into mythic status for a generation that never knew her.

A feminist icon
Girlboss Diana
Reactions to 'The Princess' documentary

“Are these young kids interested?” queries Seward. “I have no idea.”

Social media feeds aren’t on Seward’s radar, but she notes that Majesty Magazine have discovered that there is “a certain genre of people who follow Diana and Meghan and are absolutely obsessed”, but that it’s “a select group, specifically young people in America.”

“It can’t be good if people discover her through films like Spencer or Diana The Musical,” she continues, referring to the former as “distasteful and completely unnecessary” and the latter as “a complete farce.”

Fair words for the Broadway show directed by Tony-winner Christopher Ashley, which was filmed and premiered on Netflix, and which features the now-cult lyrics “Feel the groove, even royals need to move” and “Harry, my ginger-haired son, you’ll always be second to none.”

Harsher ones for Spencer, “a fable from a true tragedy” starring Kristen Stewart, from celebrated director Pablo Larraín. Still, even if the film never purports to be true-to-life accurate, there’s no denying that the ending of Spencer distances itself from the complexity of who Diana was, serving up an oversimplified final beat that wants to be empowering but doesn’t quite ring true.

“It’s all a commercial thing at the end of the day,” concludes Seward. “It’s perfectly understandable to make a film about Princess Diana 25 years later, but these films are not there to actually say anything. They are all made for commercial gain.”

The documentary The Princess is out on HBO and in select cinemas.