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The 5 Biggest Takeaways From HBO’s New Diana Documentary, The Princess

6 minute read

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.

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.”

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.

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
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 1989Alamy Stock Photo—Credit: parkerphotography / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

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