There aren’t many times I go into a new show/documentary/whatever where I am predisposed to despise the overall subject matter. Not that I went into the PBS documentary “Margaret: The Rebel Princess” hating the late Princess Margaret herself, but rather the concept of royalty and well, the British Empire and its brutal domination of large swaths of the planet. I understand the figures portrayed aren’t directly culpable, but any time the royal family and government figures show up on my screen, I can’t help but feeling at least a tiny bit angry and uncomfortable. Any more fawning portrayals of Winston Churchill and I might vomit.
But I digress. And if anything, after watching “Princess Margaret: The Rebel Princess,” I get the impression that the titular subject hated everything about her family as well. The two-part documentary details the life and loves of Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister Margaret, a woman who was in many ways a foil to her austere, perhaps “old-fashioned” older sister. She lived with a propensity for fashion and glamor, more in-tune with the changing social tide sweeping the UK and the rest of the world in the 1960s and 1970s.
To tell her story, we hear from a whole host of posh historians, family friends and biographers, as well as archival audio of the princess herself. It paints a sometimes-conflicting portrait of the complex figure. She is at times suffocated by the stuffiness of the royal household and protocol, desiring instead to go out amongst the peasants themselves and marvel at their sheer normality. However, at other times, she seems deeply envious of her older sister and unable to escape the desire to be the most important and talked about person in the room.
Her romances with British Royal Air Force Group Captain Peter Townsend and playboy photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones are devoted quite a bit of time and serve as symbols of changing Britain. Short archival clips are given of working class men and women giving support to the princess, reflecting changing attitudes towards marriage and divorce and even sexuality in the case of Armstrong-Jones, who Margaret ended up marrying.
Ultimately, I didn’t come out of the documentary knowing much more about Margaret at all. While effort was spent to portray her as a maverick of sorts, she seemed to me little more than a bored royal rather than a true champion of the non-aristocracy of Britain. I would have enjoyed much more of the thoughts of common men and women who, their thoughts on the era of sexual liberation and how Margaret played into it. It would have provided a more insightful portrayal of her and a much more compelling watch for those who aren’t fascinated by the daily lives of the rich, powerful and out-of-touch. If you actually are interested about these people’s lives, just watch Vanessa Kirby’s (“Mission Impossible: Fallout”) magnificent portrayal of Margaret in “The Crown.”