The compelling new Princess Diana documentary everyone’s talking about

The compelling new Princess Diana documentary everyone’s talking about | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Monday 4 July 2022   By Matt d’Ancona

The dramatists of Greek antiquity would have relished the story of Diana, Princess of Wales. Her tale of love, beauty, destruction, revenge, death and deep symbolism is scorched into the mythology of our own time.
In contemporary culture, the transfiguration of Diana from flesh-and-blood mortal to a figure firmly lodged in the realm of hyper-reality, myth and the collective unconscious began in earnest with Stephen Frears’s The Queen (2006), a movie set in the extraordinarily tense and emotional week after the death of the princess. Since then, the role of the princess has become the equivalent in popular culture of a great Shakespearean part which the most talented young actresses aspire to play: Naomi Watts, Kristen Stewart, Emma Corrin and soon Elizabeth Debicki.
Yet such a transfiguration was well underway long before her death in Paris in August 1997. On the day of her wedding to the Prince of Wales, Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared: ‘Here is the stuff of which fairytales are made…’. But fairytales are often full of menace, wickedness and suffering – this one especially so.
As much as she complained about the round-the-clock intrusions into her private life, she was often the master manipulator and choreographer of it all. ‘Diana’s friends cooperated,’ writes Brown, ‘because they believed that she faced a choice – explode or implode.’ In the end, tragically, she did both.
It is against this background that The Princess (showing at 150 cinemas on 30 June; then at selected venues over the summer) should be watched and understood. Brilliantly directed by Ed Perkins, the documentary strips away the mythology, the dramatisation and the iconography to reveal once more the facts of the matter (or as close as we can get to them). 
Without narration, The Princess is composed entirely of existing footage (of all sorts) spliced together to tell the story afresh, from the royal couple’s engagement in 1981 to Diana’s death and funeral 16 years later. Opening with crackling video imagery and interspersing archive news coverage with private film excerpts, the documentary allows reality to speak for itself.
By sticking so rigorously to this approach – which owes more to the ‘direct cinema’ of the late D.A. Pennebaker than to the melodrama of Netflix, the Hollywood portraits of Mario Testino, or the statuary of Kensington Palace Gardens – Perkins achieves something that is, in context, artistically rebellious.
Retrieving Diana’s story from the stylised accounts to which we have become so habituated, from the conspiracy theorists and the side-taking, from the accretions of legend and hearsay, he forces us to confront what actually happened. 
As Diana’s relationship with the Prince of Wales collapses, it is shocking to overhear the paparazzi refer to the princess routinely as ‘the loon’. The clips from Diana’s Panorama interview with Martin Bashir in 1995 are all the more powerful because they are presented without commentary. Ditto the images of Camilla Parker-Bowles as a spectator at Charles’s polo matches, and of Diana’s lovers James Gilbey and James Hewitt. There are no saints in this account.
What there is, to a shocking degree, is a gathering sense of impending doom; of a violent denouement, even. In the wretched features of Charles and Diana, caught on camera all over the world, one sees only sorrow and captivity: a sense that things will not end well. To Perkins’ great credit, this is a very uncomfortable and unsettling film to watch.
Here are this week’s recommendations.

The compelling new Princess Diana documentary everyone’s talking about | Soho House


Luzzu (Curzon Home Cinema)
A boat, like any artefact, can become a precious heirloom and symbol of tradition; and so, it is for young Maltese fisherman, Jesmark Saliba (Jesmark Scicluna), whose brightly-painted, 12-foot luzzu, Ta’ Palma, has been in the family for generations. How, though, to remain true to the past when you are struggling in the present? Jesmark and his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia) discover that their baby son Aiden isn’t growing as he should and needs specialist treatment they can ill afford, and in desperation, Jesmark does business with a black market fish trader.
Maltese-American director and writer Alex Camilleri shows huge promise in this debut feature – not least by casting local non-actors in most of the key roles and enlisting Léo Lefèvre to oversee the film’s sensational cinematography. A superb film. 

The compelling new Princess Diana documentary everyone’s talking about | Soho House
The compelling new Princess Diana documentary everyone’s talking about | Soho House


An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong 
Wittgenstein’s famous dictum that ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ has long troubled philosophers – not least Thomas Nagel who addressed the question in a classic 1974 essay, ‘What Is It Like To Be A Bat?’. In this wonderful book, Ed Yong takes the reader on a voyage through the perceptual worlds of animals and urges us to escape our own ‘unique sensory bubble’ and ditch the ‘anthropocentric affectation’ that human perception is the default setting in relation to which the experience of all species should be judged. On almost every page, there is an astonishing detail or disclosure: echolocation enables dolphins to perceive not only the outer form of a human being but our skeleton and organs; a bee can detect the electrical charge surrounding a flower; scallops have 200 eyes (though not in the way that humans do). An Immense World is like a joyful dialogue between Oliver Sacks and Sir David Attenborough. But it is also a humbling book, that leaves one embarrassed at the innate human presumption that what we see is all there is. ‘Animals are not just stand-ins for humans or fodder for brainstorming sessions,’ Yong writes. ‘They have worth in themselves.’ 



This unmissable Tortoise P.P. Arnold playlist, compiled by our Head of Programming, Mark St Andrew, will get you in the mood for the soul legend’s visit to the Tortoise newsroom on Tuesday 12 July, which I’m lucky enough to be hosting. From her early performance as an ‘Ikette’ with Ike and Tina Turner, via a phenomenal solo career, and collaborations with artists and groups from Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Paul Weller and Barry Gibb to Primal Scream, The KLF and the Fratellis, P.P. Arnold – born Patricia Ann Cole – is one of the most inspiring and eclectic performers of the past 60 years. You know Rod Stewart’s version of ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’? Arnold recorded that 10 years before, in 1967, and – sorry, Rod – got closer than anyone to the magic at the heart of that great Cat Stevens number. Once you’ve booked your place for 12 July, you can preorder her memoir, Soul Survivor here
Friends of Tortoise members can join us for a very special dinner after the ThinkIn at The Charlotte Street Hotel, London (places are limited). Please email
That’s all for now. Enjoy the week and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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