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Sundance review: 'The Princess' delivers refreshing video essay on Diana

Princess Diana appears via archival footage in "The Princess." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute
Princess Diana appears via archival footage in "The Princess." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Director Ed Perkins' documentary The Princess, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival Thursday, is a look back at the public life of Princess Diana exclusively via archival footage. That makes it more of a video essay than a documentary.

Perhaps there has been so much speculation about the royal family that this approach is refreshing. It still includes all the speculation and commentary from sources in the '80s and '90s. There is such a vast array of footage that The Princess achieves a kind of Cliff Notes of two decades that Googling "Princess Diana" can't convey.

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Technically it is a document of verified, existing footage, but there are no talking heads, no narrator, no context really. It just puts you back in the era of Princess Diana, as it happened. There is still a musical score, though.

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The Princess begins when Prince Charles and Diana make their relationship public. Princess Diana is 19 at the time, and already being asked how she'd prepare to be Queen. She thinks she's ready for it. What else would someone say in that situation?

As the film shows, she did try to prepare for potentially ascending the throne. Later, she would go on the record to acknowledge there were things she could not have prepared for at 19.

There is lots of footage of the royal wedding, as it was well covered by the British media and public. The Princess also covers the birth of Prince William and Prince Harry, with a little bit of footage of the boys on vacation with their mum. Footage of Prince William and Prince Harry is minimal though. The focus is Princess Diana.

Archival material includes commentary that Princess Diana began overshadowing Prince Charles, and caused him frustrations over that. Of course, Perkins could pick the interviews where the questions were critical. Surely, that's indicative of a lot of the coverage at the time.

There was probably plenty of fluff too, so it may be reassuring that Perkins didn't include any fluff. A filmmaker may be hard pressed to create a portrait where the media softballs Princess Diana and Prince Charles, but Perkins wasn't interested in doing that anyway.

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Perkins devotes respectable attention to Princess Diana's charity work, including opening the first AIDS ward in Britain and campaigning for the banning of land mines. It's enough to suggest future generations were deprived of what else she may have accomplished had she lived.

The more tell-all books were published about Princess Diana and Prince Charles, the more news material Perkins can pull from. The demise of their marriage is traced from Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story through Princess in Love, Anna Pasternak's report on Princess Diana's relationship with James Hewitt, and Jonathan Dimbleby's Prince of Wales biography. These reports also include anchors taking Morton to task for the allegations in his book.

Perhaps the most difficult footage to watch in The Princess are the early reports of her 1997 automobile accident. Before it was confirmed, some media reported rumors that Princess Diana had lived. Hindsight makes those hopeful reports all the more tragic.

The Princess doesn't offer any new material or information on Princess Diana, but that's arguably the point of focusing on existing footage. The footage flows smoothly and quickly, so that by the time it reaches Princess Diana's relationship with Dodi Fayed, you may be surprised it's ending.

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The Princess premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be distributed by HBO.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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Queen Elizabeth II greets Liz Truss at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 6, 2022. The queen asked Truss to form a new administration. Truss accepted and was appointed prime minister and first lord of the treasury. Photo courtesy of The Royal Family/Twitter

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