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Just the facts, ma’am

Just the facts, ma’am

Ed Perkins’ fine documentary The Princess rescues Diana’s story from the hyper-reality of myth and drama

The dramatists of Greek antiquity would have relished the story of Diana, Princess of Wales. As Antigone was to Sophocles, Medea to Euripides and Clytemnestra to Aeschylus, so she is to the modern era: her tale of love, beauty, destruction, revenge, death and deep symbolism scorched into the mythology of our own time.

In contemporary culture, the transfiguration of Diana 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, in which she barely features on screen, but which she dominates in absentia. Though the film is framed as a dialogue between the monarch (Helen Mirren) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), it is Diana with whom they are both subconsciously speaking.

Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen in The Queen (2006)

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: we have seen Naomi Watts in Diana (2013), Kristen Stewart’s Oscar-nominated interpretation in Spencer (2021), Emma Corrin as the young Diana in season four of The Crown (the best performance to date), and trailers of Elizabeth Debicki picking up the diamond-studded baton in season five, which is expected in November. 

Alongside Diana’s many appearances in fiction – check out, especially, Monica Ali’s Untold Story (2011) – these movies and prestige television dramas have completed her transfiguration from flesh-and-blood mortal to a figure firmly lodged in the realm of hyper-reality, myth and the collective unconscious.

Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021)

Yet this process was well underway long before her death in Paris in August 1997. On the day of her wedding to the Prince of Wales in July 1981, 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. 

Nor was Diana passive in her transition from shy young nursery assistant to global fashion icon and champion of emotional intelligence against the stuffy intransigence of the Establishment. In her fine book on Diana, Tina Brown notes the “mythomania” of the princess – her insistence upon curating and controlling this radical shift herself. 

Diana wearing a military-style suit by Catherine Walker on a visit to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, 1987

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 – who received an Oscar nomination in 2018 for Black Sheep – 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 sixteen years later. Opening with crackling video imagery and interspersing archive news coverage with private film excerpts, the documentary allows reality to speak for itself.

The funeral of Princess Diana, 1997

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. What you might expect to seem wearyingly familiar – haven’t we seen all this a hundred times? – feels, in practice, like a bucket of cold water: when we hear Charles in Washington, DC in 1985 refusing to answer questions on behalf of his wife – “I’m not a glove puppet” – we sense, more than in any movie, the true bitterness of the resentment that is already curdling within the heir to the throne. 

As the relationship 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 profound 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.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana at Clarence House, 1987

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.

At the screening I attended, the director spoke of “a weirdly personal connection” with the princess’s story – even for those born after her death – and his ambition to stimulate “a conversation about who we are.”

Certainly, his movie achieves that, and triumphantly so. It is, most obviously, a primer in the pre-social media emergence of modern celebrity: a cultural revolution in which Diana was both pioneer and victim. It shows, especially in the scenes of the princess with Aids patients, how profound remains the ancestral belief in the saving power of royalty (a superstition described in Marc Bloch’s 1923 classic, The Royal Touch: Monarchy and Miracles in France and England). 

The princess talks to patients in the AIDS unit of St Mary’s Hospital, London, 1989

Long before Instagram and TikTok, the transformation of places associated with the princess into medieval grottoes of candles, tributes, and flowers showed how ancient a force is social contagion (on the emergence of the floral “cellotaph” in 1997, check out Mark Earls’s Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature).

Perhaps most striking is the extent to which, in life and death, Diana gave us a taste of the polarisation that was to become one of the defining features of social and political life in the years after her death. The vox pops inserted by Perkins remind us that she was not by any means the “People’s Princess” in the eyes of all people. 

Her later life, death and its aftermath were a warning of the much more consequential national divisions that were to erupt in the Brexit referendum. Something broke in the week after her death that has not yet been mended. The nation developed a taste for division, faction-forming and the attribution of blame to the other side which shows no sign of abating and has, of course, been digitally turbocharged in a way that was unforeseeable in 1997.

In the post-truth era – the age of “Netflixstory”, if you like – the redeployment of fact is an act of defiance that swims against the tide of emotionalism, narrative melodrama and celebrity-driven legend. We can, and should face up to the reality of the past. For Diana, alas, no such escape from the digital Olympus of modern mythology is on offer.

Here are this week’s recommendations.


The Man Who Fell to Earth (Paramount+)

You have to be courageous, or stupid, or both, to attempt a sequel to a cult classic like Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) – the unashamedly odd tale of an alien (David Bowie), calling himself Thomas Jerome Newton, who lands in New Mexico, hoping to trade hyper-advanced technology for the means to take water back to his dying planet (the original movie was based on a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis). Bowie himself composed a musical, Lazarus, continuing Newton’s story, that was first performed in New York, weeks before his death in 2016. 

Credit, then, to showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, who, in this ten-part drama series, have remained true to the core weirdness of Roeg’s original without otherwise being constrained by its distinctively Seventies style. Following Newton’s failed mission, Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor) undertakes a last desperate bid to save the few thousand survivors on their planet – and locates the brilliant scientist Justin Falls (Naomie Harris) in a bid to give Earth quantum fusion (thus saving it from climate disaster) in return for the resource his fellow “Antheans” so badly need.

Big corporations, the CIA, unstable realities: all add to a mix that will surely divide audiences but is very much worth persisting with. If nothing else, you’ll want to see Bill Nighy as Newton – an inspired casting that honours Bowie’s legacy but is not remotely trapped by it.

Minions: the Rise of Gru (general release, 1 July) 

Much as I enjoyed Despicable Me way back in 2010, I have to admit that I did not spot its potential as the basis of a billion-dollar animated franchise – of which this is the fifth instalment. As entertaining as the secretly-rather-nice supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) has always been, it is the Minions – the ancient race of small, yellow creatures who have secretly served the bad guys since the dawn of time – that provide the secret sauce. Minions (2015), which traces their history and zeroes in on Kevin, Stuart and Bob (all voiced by Pierre Coffin), their adventures with the Queen, and their first encounter with the young Gru, is undoubtedly one of the funniest films of the past decade. In this second prequel, Kyle Balda resumes directing duties, tracing Gru’s bid to take over the Vicious 6 team of supervillains (though still aged only 11¾). Along the way Michelle Yeoh – fresh from her triumph in Everything Everywhere All at Once (see Creative Sensemaker, 12 May) – teaches Kevin, Stuart and Bob the martial arts. There are cameos galore (Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean Clawed, Dolph Lundgren as Svengeance and Danny Trejo as Stronghold), but the most memorable source of fun in Minions: The Rise of Gru is the retro Seventies setting and soundtrack (including the Ramones, the Rolling Stones and Linda Ronstadt) which make the yellow creatures’ antics and unmistakable jabbering all the more hilarious. A perfect popcorn movie.

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, twelve-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.

In desperation, Jesmark – who has never left the Maltese islands – does business with a black market fish trader. But a much more painful question looms over him. Is there any future in the livelihood that has defined his community “for a thousand years”? Should he turn his back on that past and take the compensation cash offered by the EU to move fishermen into different trades?

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. Watch the pain on Jesmark’s face as he looks at his own infant foot marks in paint on the timber of the luzzu, and confronts the agonising tension between the imperatives of inheritance and the pressures of modern reality. A superb film. 


An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us – Ed Yong (Bodley Head)

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 – who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the pandemic in the Atlantic – 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; what looks like a meaningless flight path is a fly’s way of directing itself towards more comfortable temperatures; a bee can detect the electrical charge surrounding a flower; a seal’s whiskers enable it to track a fish that is 200 yards away; scallops have 200 eyes (though not in the way that humans do). An Immense World is like a joyful dialogue between Oliver Sacks and 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.” 

Just. Got. Real. – Jane Fallon (Michael Joseph)

Joni is a middle-aged divorcee (named after Joni Mitchell, of course) looking for love and faltering in the world of dating apps. After she freezes and bolts from her first date with Ant – recognising him at the venue but deciding not to go ahead – she performs an emotional U-turn and plots a way to meet him anyway and win his heart. The elaborate steps she has to take are very funny and get Jane Fallon’s 12th book off to a great start. Surprising herself, Joni (calling herself Lucy now) manages to contrive another encounter with Ant, at one of the branches of the wellness company he owns, and the two begin an affair. Then… well, then it turns out that she is not the only one with something to hide. Fallon, whose career first took off as a television producer (EastEnders, This Life) is now firmly established as one of our very best comic writers, in the tradition of Fay Weldon and Muriel Spark. Though her narrative has pace and the prose is silky smooth, it is her gift for the waspish phrase and aperçu that marks her out: oat is the “missionary position of the plant-milk world”; Joni worries that her daughter is “one of those skinny fat people who looks fit on the outside… but whose organs are slowly being strangled by lard”; her sister and brother-in-law “only noticed the pandemic was happening because the dinner-party invites dried up and Waitrose was occasionally all out of Moët.” Fallon is good, too, on the pain of bereavement suffered by Joni, whose best friend Meg has died in a car crash. Highly recommended.

Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy – Henry Kissinger (Allen Lane)

In the era of digital populism and strong-man autocracy, leadership has become a sadly debased art. On that basis alone, this study by the Keith Richards of geopolitics (now aged 99) of six of that art’s most legendary 20th-century practitioners – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher – is to be welcomed. Kissinger knew them all, and he knew Nixon best (serving as his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State); which makes the otherwise unjustified inclusion of the 37th US president at least psychologically explicable. That aside, the book is consistently compelling in its insistence that “transformative leadership” matters at least as much as impersonal forces in the unfolding of history, and that – while every great leader must be both “prophet” and “statesman” – none will serve his or her nation well if “strategy” is subordinated to idealism. Kissinger’s concept of the “national interest” is overwhelmingly determined by global positioning and you sometimes feel that he regards domestic politics as a tedious sideshow. But his range, experience and scholarship are, as ever, remarkable – as is his grasp of the contemporary (he is excellent on the threat to “deep literacy” represented by the technological revolution). There is much for today’s politicians, starved of inspiration and long-term vision, to learn in these pages. Odd to say of a book written by a man who is almost a centenarian, but Leadership is, above all, refreshing.


More Content – Barry Can’t Swim

Following last year’s dancefloor sensation, Blackpool Boulevard, created in collaboration with Anish Kumar, the Edinburgh born DJ (AKA Joshua Mannie) returns with this very pleasing four-track EP. The influence of Barry’s classic training and love of jazz is everywhere apparent in the discipline of the music, a framework which allows him to let rip with emotion when he feels so disposed. Especially strong in this respect (and featuring singer-songwriter Taite Imogen) is ‘God is The Space Between Us’ – inspired by the 1995 movie Before Sunrise. Fellow producer Laurence Guy is recruited to the catchy ‘Can We Still Be Friends’, and there is a nicely-judged nod in the final track, ‘Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore’, to Mark Leckey’s much-loved 1999 film of the same name. Billboard voted Barry Can’t Swim one of its 10 Dance Artists To Watch in 2022’ – and it is not hard to see why.

Plucked Bach – Alon Sariel

In his portrait of Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, Sir John Eliot Gardiner writes that the composer’s cello suites have a “skeletal nature [that] means that the music is festooned with little time-bombs of harmonic potential that tease the listener to speculate on how they might turn out.” With impressive audacity, the virtuoso Israeli performer and conductor Alon Sariel strides on to this near-sacred terrain grove of the classical repertoire with his mandolin, baroque guitar, and lute to reinterpret music we associate deeply with the cello of, say, Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma. The creative daring pays off, and to sublime effect. To listen to Sariel’s delicate and dexterous performance of the great Suite No.1 in G, for instance, is to hear music that resides in our shared cultural DNA but also to appreciate fresh possibilities within it. An additional treat is his own Bach-inspired composition Mandolin Partita which rounds off the album. Sariel is not due to perform in the UK until January – but keep an eye on his tour plans for additional dates.

Join our ThinkIn with P.P Arnold

And here’s an unmissable Tortoise P.P. Arnold playlist, compiled by our Head of Programming, Mark St Andrew to get you in the mood for the soul legend’s visit to our newsroom on 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 sixty years. You know Rod Stewart’s version of ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’? Arnold recorded that ten 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 pre-order 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 liv.friendsof@tortoisemedia.com

And Finally… 

Thanks to Tortoise member, Paul Atherton, for this recommendation of JJ Levine: Queer Portraits (Canada Gallery, until 2 July)

“Canadian artist JJ. Levine‘s work is amongst the most inspired being produced today when it comes to examining gender and its contemporary meaning. Rather than labouring a point sledgehammer-style, he challenges his viewers to confront their preconceptions simply by looking at his photographs.

The free exhibition in the small gallery of Canada House on Trafalgar Square, is made up from a selection of images taken from his three major collections.

Firstly, “Switch”, which presents what on the surface appear to be heterosexual couples in a classic studio photoshoot – but, on closer inspection, turn out to be pairings of photographs is of couples swapping genders.

Next, “Queer Portraits”: photographs of his queer friends in exceedingly curated spaces, to focus the viewer’s attention on what we accept as norms, and what we don’t in our surroundings.

Finally, and most fascinating, “Alone Time”. Each heterosexual couple is photographed with a child in a staged home setting. The twist is revealed when it becomes clear that the male and female parents are – in fact – the same person.

The real surprise, and one that I suspect is unintended, is that, within this space, the binary remains all-encompassing; even when Levine is trying to deconstruct it. A fascinating exploration worth 30 minutes of your time.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Artwork Nicola Green/Altitude Films

Photographs courtesy Altitude Films, Getty Images, Paramount+, Pathé, JJ Levine, Universal Studios