Film & Television

‘Spencer’ Fantasizes Princess Diana’s Holiday from Hell

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was terribly beautiful and terribly young and terribly naïve. She fell in love with a prince and the whole world watched as they exchanged their vows. At this point, if she had been a Disney princess, the music would soar, the credits would roll, and little girls would leave the movie theater sublimely satisfied.

Unfortunately, since the young woman was Diana Frances Spencer, and her groom was Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, the story didn’t end there. In the years that followed (eleven married, three separated, and one divorced), their fairy tale wedding was overshadowed by tabloid stories about infidelity, eating disorders, marital woes, and rows. Diana appeared to be rebuilding her life away from the royals and genuinely happy before she died in a late-night car crash under Paris in 1997.

Between The Crown (excellent) and Diana: The Musical (not so excellent, — rather dreadful, actually), the short life of Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to capture the attention and hearts of creators and audience alike. The latest addition to a long line of film and television biopics is Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain, with a script by Steven Knight, and starring Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, and, most notably, Kristen Stewart.

If you think you already know Diana’s story, you probably do. Spencer isn’t interested in uncovering scandalous truths that were somehow missed by the thousands of books, news stories, biopics, and miniseries that came before it. Diana, who died at just 36, was often described as the most photographed woman in the world. And that world’s insatiable appetite hasn’t markedly diminished in nearly 25 years.

A title card at the start of Spencer describes what we’re going to see as “A fable from a true tragedy.” It covers three days — Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day, 1991 — at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth’s country estate in Norfolk. There, the royal family has gathered to celebrate with its stuffy, time-honored traditions, billed as “a bit of fun” but adding, every moment, to Diana’s growing anxiety and claustrophobia. “Here, past and present are the same thing,” she explains to her boys, “and the future doesn’t exist.”

The enormous house is notoriously cold, and if Diana feels she’s being watched, she’s right. Besides the press, who crowd outside the chapel after Christmas services and invest in ever more sophisticated telephoto lenses to catch a glimpse of the princess en déshabillé, she is under the scrutiny of the staff. They report any transgression, from wearing a lunch outfit for breakfast to leaving her sitting-room curtains open; from walking the grounds at night to arriving late for a family portrait.

In truth, Diana is late to almost every event, and she’s judged harshly, whether with an icy stare from her mother-in-law, or a lecture from Major Alistar Gregory (Spall), the Queen Mother’s equerry, who has been brought in specifically to keep Diana in line. Charles (Farthing) is particularly harsh, lecturing Diana about her bulimia, depicted in graphic and desperate detail here. “The hens laid the eggs,” he drones, “the fishermen caught the fish. The bees made the honey. Please do them the courtesy of not regurgitating them into a toilet bowl.”

The only sympathy Diana finds comes from her dresser, Maggie (Hawkins, marvelous, as always), a Shakespeare-quoting chef, Darren, and her two sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, both fine), who have had to grow up a bit too fast, not only as members of a cold and unforgiving family, but as sometime caregivers for their obviously tormented mum.

None of this is particularly new or newsworthy. Where Larrain’s film really departs from earlier treatments is in its use of fantasy to dramatize Diana’s fragile state of mind. When Charles gives her the same exquisite pearl necklace he’s given his lover Camilla Parker-Bowles, Diana imagines yanking it from her neck and eating the pearls along with her pale green soup. She dances through Sandringham’s endless hallways, remembering the freedom and “ordinary life” of her childhood. She has encounters with the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), with whom she identifies as a spurned wife. When she meets Darren on the road, late for her Christmas Eve arrival, she asks, “Do you think they’ll kill me?” She’s joking. Mostly. 

The film is sad and moves slowly (as do Diana’s three days), but fascinating to watch. There’s a great deal of symbolism, much of which is painfully obvious. Diana gets lost on her way to Sandringham and explains to the gobsmacked patrons of a local petrol station, “I have no idea where I am.” Her wardrobe includes elegant, calligraphed tags that read P.O.W. (for Princess of Wales). She relates to the estate’s pheasants, bred only to be hunted. She and Charles face off across an enormous billiard table. Her childhood home, adjacent to Sandringham, is boarded up and she has to borrow wire cutters to break into it. A sign in the kitchen reads “Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you.”

The other distinguishing aspect of Spencer is its remarkable lead. Stewart doesn’t actually look like Diana, but she has perfected her mannerisms, head tilt, and clipped “Sloane Ranger” accent. Her performance is wonderful — we truly feel for this imprisoned princess — and all the more so because Stewart hasn’t always been afforded the praise and respect she deserves as an actress. A box office star at 17 as Bella Swan in the first Twilight film, she was discounted by most critics despite commercial success. She was perpetual tabloid fodder thanks to her on-again/off-again romance with costar Robert Pattinson, and later coming out as lesbian. Stewart no doubt related to Diana’s struggles keeping her private life out of the public eye. She is in almost every scene of Spencer, and always intensely heartbreaking. She should be considered seriously when awards season comes around.

Spencer is not a fairy story; in fact, many of its scenes and sequences feel more like horror. As a meditation on the crisis of mental health that Diana lived through, it’s devastatingly effective. There is some hope, at last, that Diana will break free and build a better life for herself and her beloved boys. But, alas, we all know how her story ends. 

Spencer does give us a chance to reflect upon another story, though one with a happier ending. Once upon a time, there was a gifted young actress whose early success in a number of sensational supernatural sagas undermined her attempts to be taken seriously. She worked very hard and shone brightly in a terribly difficult role, playing one of modern history’s most beloved women with enormous artistry, emotional intelligence, and heart. The industry sat up and took notice, and she never had to play a high-school-student-turned-vampire again.

The end.

Spencer is currently in theaters.


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