What We Learned About Diana From HBO's 'The Princess' Doc (2023)

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.

Which is to say that in both life and death, Diana has been under constant scrutiny, an overarching theme of The Princess, a new documentary about the royal airing Aug. 13 on HBO. Directed by Ed Perkins, 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.

Because the film deals exclusively in archival footage, including countless media interviews with Diana and the rest of the family, as well as broadcasts about their life, several moments chronicled in the documentary may be familiar to viewers. 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. Photos of Diana, lingering on her downcast eyes at a polo game take on more resonance when interspersed with the relentless media coverage of the speculated affair between Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles that was happening at the same time. Civilian-shot footage of Diana and her companion Dodi Al-Fayed trying to leave their hotel in Paris is chilling given the context of their deaths later that night.

With that in mind, here are five ways The Princess reframes what we know about Diana.

(Video) The Princess | Official Trailer | HBO

It was believed that the media frenzy around Diana would simmer down after the royal wedding

Upon speculation that she was engaged to Prince Charles, public scrutiny and a media circus descended upon Diana, then a shy 19-year-old nursery school teacher. In early footage shown in the film, Diana is followed down the street by the paparazzi while attempting to go to her home, foreshadowing the relentless media frenzy that would follow her ceaselessly and eventually lead 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. Unfortunately for Diana, this would not come to pass.

Read More: How Princess Diana Created a New Era of Celebrity

Diana and Charles barely knew each other at the time of their engagement

In an awkward and frigid media interview at their engagement announcement in 1981, Charles and Diana are asked what they have in common. They both hem and haw before finally settling uncertainly on sharing a similar sense of humor and an affinity for outdoor activities. The couple had only dated for six months before announcing their engagement, which might account for some of their mutual 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.”

(Video) ‘The Princess' Documentary: Rare Footage of Diana and Sons William & Harry

Charles was not happy being eclipsed in popularity by Diana

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. Footage of their tour of Australia shows how she is clearly the draw for many of the crowds and on more than one instance, Charles acknowledges her popularity. In one clip, he jests about the convenience of having two wives in order to accommodate the large crowds trying to meet Diana. In another, more poignant clip, he riffs about his luck in not only getting engaged to but marrying Diana. While the joke is met with chuckles, the real laughter comes after Diana makes a face in response; while Charles continued his speech, the awkward pause captured after the laughter speaks volumes. “He knows it’s the princess everyone wants to meet,” one media commentator says in the film. “He’s taken a backseat.”

Read More: Why Princess Diana Is So Hard to Get 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.

What We Learned About Diana From HBO's 'The Princess' Doc (1)

2E03NP3 Diana, Princess of Wales surrounded by police and security as she arrives for a visit to Harlem Hospital?s pediatric AIDS unit in Harlem. New York City, USA. Feb 1989

Alamy Stock Photo—Credit: parkerphotography / Alamy Stock Photo

(Video) Documentary 2017 - Diana Revealed: The Princess No One Knew (In her own words)

Diana was always under critique

Diana was undeniably always in the public eye—and her every move was up for critique. While much of the world was enamored with her beauty and persona, she was routinely criticized by the media and the public for her appearance, her public and private struggles, her parenting, and even her humanitarian work.

(Video) First Look At Princess Diana Documentary 'The Princess' | ROYAL REWIND

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. In one, Diana is seen trying to shield William and Harry from the paparazzi after picking them up from school, overlaid with audio of a media commentator cruelly talking about her ability to parent them 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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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.

(Video) The Diana Investigations | Official Trailer | discovery+


Why is Diana an inspiration? ›

Diana didn't just accept the world around her for the way it was and she used her role in the public eye to help causes that many others overlooked. She also believed in the power of young people to change the world and that young people should be supported to make sure they reach their full potential.

What is the story behind Diana? ›

Princess Diana became Lady Diana Spencer after her father inherited the title of Earl Spencer in 1975. She married the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, on July 29, 1981. They had two sons and later divorced in 1996. Diana died on August 31, 1997, from injuries she sustained in a car crash in Paris.

Who is Princess Diana and what did she do? ›

Although the Princess was renowned for her style and was closely associated with the fashion world, patronising and raising the profile of younger British designers, she was best known for her charitable work. During her marriage, the Princess was president or patron of over 100 charities.

How many episodes is Diana in her own words? ›

Episodes (1)

National Geographic Documentary Films reveals her story told in her voice.

What was Princess Diana's message? ›

She urges us to make peace in the Middle East a priority for the world's children, and then their children ring so true even today. This is a message that must be heard, and must read for those her loved princess Diana and and want world peace!(

Why was Princess Diana so important? ›

She was the first wife of Charles, Prince of Wales—the heir apparent to the British throne—and mother of Princes William and Harry. Diana's activism and glamour made her an international icon and earned her enduring popularity as well as unprecedented public scrutiny, exacerbated by her tumultuous private life.

How did Princess Diana impact society? ›

In life, Diana revitalized the British monarchy and in death, she changed it forever. Today, her legacy lives on in everything from the Windsor's more accessible approach to the public to William and Harry's charity work to virtually everything Kate does.

What were Diana's last words? ›

Sergeant Xavier Gourmelon, who led the response team in Paris, told The Independent Diana's last words were, “My God, what's happened?” Brown narrates what may have happened next: “She turned her head and saw the lifeless Dodi just in front of her, then turned her head again toward the front where the bodyguard was ...

What happened to Diana's story? ›

In the early hours of 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, died from the injuries she sustained in a car crash in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris, France. Dodi Fayed, Diana's partner, and Henri Paul, the driver of the Mercedes-Benz W140 S-Class, were pronounced dead at the scene.

How would you describe Princess Diana? ›

Diana had many fine traits that were evident both in public and in private: warmth, sweetness, affection, femininity, naturalness, grace, sensitivity, reserve, humility, wit, instinctive sympathy, thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, courtesy, resilience, exuberance, energy, self-discipline, courage.

What good things did Diana do? ›

Throughout her life, Diana devoted herself to serving others, especially those without a voice. She was President or Patron of over 100 charities as a part of her royal duties, many of which did work on behalf of homeless and disabled people, children, and people with HIV/AIDS.

Why was Diana a Princess but not Kate? ›

The sweet exchange makes reference to the fact that Kate is due to inherit the title of Princess of Wales when Prince Charles becomes king and William becomes the Prince of Wales. The title has become closely associated with Princess Diana who became Princess of Wales upon marrying Charles in 1981.

Is Diana based on a true story? ›

While the film is inspired by real-life figures, longtime rumors and real events, it is still very much a work of fiction, anchored by Larraín's experimental direction, which includes, among other things, hallucinations and a visit from Anne Boleyn.

Is Spencer Princess Diana based on a true story? ›

Spencer is not based on the true story of Princess Diana directly, but was rather inspired by her life.

Why was Princess Diana's life so sad? ›

Due in part to the cracking family foundation, the Earl of Spencer, Diana's father, reportedly entered a dark phase of depression and left all the raising of his children to a variety of nannies. Diana herself recalled that her childhood was "very unhappy" and that she considered her 20 stuffed animals as her family.

Why was Diana a princess but not Kate? ›

The sweet exchange makes reference to the fact that Kate is due to inherit the title of Princess of Wales when Prince Charles becomes king and William becomes the Prince of Wales. The title has become closely associated with Princess Diana who became Princess of Wales upon marrying Charles in 1981.


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