Film Review: “Spencer” — Royal Damsel in Distress
By Tim Jackson
This portrait of Princess Diana interweaves facts with fantasies to create an impressionistic profile of a troubled woman trapped in a golden cage.
Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín. Opens on November 5, screening at Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square Cinemas.
Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s last three features are fables of liberation that attempt to plumb the emotional hearts of women under duress. Jackie (2016) was an imaginative portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the week following her husband’s assassination. She sits for an interview with Theodore White for Life magazine in which she voices the significance of JFK’s historical moment. Despite the problems in her marriage, she has begun to manage his legacy. Ema (2019) is a more impenetrable film that received much less critical attention. An abstract statement on female freedom, the storyline focuses on a volatile couple who manage a Reggaeton dance troupe. They have returned their adopted child and the ensuing guilt results in embattled arguments and extramarital hijinks. A tantalizing layer of strangeness: the woman happens to be a pyromaniac.
Now we have Spencer, Larraín’s portrait of Princess Diana, which describes itself as “A Fable Based on a Real Tragedy.” Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders) script interweaves facts about the princess with fantasies to create an impressionistic profile of a troubled woman trapped in a golden cage. What’s left unsaid: she was 16 when she met Prince Charles and he was 12 years her senior. They married in 1981 when she had just turned 20. They separated in 1994, divorced in 1996, and she died in a horrific car crash the following year. During the marriage her husband had a lengthy affair with the Duchess of Cornwall, which he admitted to in 1992. You might recall Camillagate, which included such nuggets of gossip as the Prince’s message to his lover, “Oh, God. I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier!”
There are plenty of books on the life of Diana Spencer, so Larraín’s film dispenses with biography to design an emotional profile through imaginative visuals and invented scenes, set mostly in the sprawling but suffocating world of Sandringham House, from which Diana is continually trying to escape. In the first scene, Diana is driving her Aston Martin alone through the countryside. Finding herself lost, her first words are, “Where the fuck am I.” She walks into a small café and, to the astonishment of the patrons, quietly says, “I have absolutely no idea where I am.” This confusion will be played out (symbolically) in a number of other scenes. Later, Diana is caught by guards as she is cutting through the barbed wire fence in order to visit the estate where she grew up. There she enjoyed the freedom of a childhood, an autonomy that she may never know again. Diana happens on a biography of Anne Boleyn, second wife of the philandering King Henry VIII, who was beheaded for treason. Her fears of martyrdom are heightened.
Diana is required, if not forced, to put on an elegant front, maintain her dignity, follow etiquette, to be a pretty face. Every ritual is prescribed, every behavior scrutinized. Her salvation is her two sons, William and Harry, in whom she tries to instill a sense of independence and freedom that she rarely feels for herself.
Her rebellion against royal control includes suicide attempts, bulimia, and self-harm. And then there is the private emotional toll of trying to stay reasonably sane as she is relentlessly pursued by paparazzi and the tabloid press. In the book Diana: In Her Own Words, she recalls, “I was constantly polite, constantly civil. I was never rude. I never shouted. I cried like a baby to the four walls. I just couldn’t cope with it. I cried because I got no support from Charles and no support from the Palace press office. They just said: ‘You’re on your own, so I thought, ‘Fine’.
Kristen Stewart is certain to receive a best actress nomination for her muted and whispered performance. Much of what we know of Diana has been generated by the endless images that filled the maw of the media. Accordingly, Stewart relies on externals to conjure up Diana’s public life. The actress focuses on the sidelong glance and soft-spoken delivery. At times, you must lean in to catch the gist of a conversation. She suggests Diana’s private hell through the woman’s hesitant, almost wounded, body language. The film’s production’s crews expertly recreate the “Lady Diana Haircut,” a feathered shag that Vogue called “a youthful riff on Farrah Fawcett’s winged hair with a cascade of cropped, cheekbone-cutting and chin-grazing layers.” Her impeccable sense of style and iconic fashions are replicated well. Often, her clothing is thrust on her by royal dressers for formal events or family dinners.
Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) is cast to perfection as the pinched and priggish veteran equerry, Major Alistair Gregory. He has been hired to keep the princess focused and on time for her dinners and duties and to keep the press at bay. “I watch to make sure others do not see,” Gregory says. Diana, who was been seen changing from a window, has had her drapes sewn shut. Launching into his own story of duty, tradition, and sacrifice, Gregory explains, “Who do soldiers die for? The crown. It’s not about human beings, only about your oath.” To which she softly responds with uncertain irony, “Would you die for me?”
Charles, played by Jack Farthing, is her emotionally absent husband. In a less-than-comforting speech, he explains, “There has to be two of you. There’s two of me. The real one and the one they take pictures of. We are given a task, but you have to be able to make your body do things you hate.”
“Thing you hate?” she asks.
“For the country, the people. They don’t want us to be people. That’s how it is. I’m sorry, I thought you knew.”
Sally Hawkins, one of Britain’s finest actresses (Happy Go Lucky) is Maggie, Diana’s most faithful and beloved attendant. Her scenes with Stewart evoke the melancholy rooted in their mutual love and loneliness. Jonny Greenwood, former guitarist for Radiohead and go-to composer for Paul Thomas Anderson, has become a master of providing scores that blend elegance and madness. His smart music shifts perfectly between classical themes and dissonant jazz.
Entertainments like The Crown, as well as the guarded words of Diana’s son Harry and his wife, Megan, have cast a very unfavorable light on the inner sanctum of the Royal Palace. Spencer assumes we are familiar with the princess’s contributions to society, such as her charity work; it seeks to dramatize her struggle to remain her own person. The Royal Family failed to mold Diana’s image, and her resilience as a figure of dissent from tradition has kept her legacy alive and admired. The closing shot gives us Diana with her two young sons as the Mike & The Mechanics tune “All I Need Is a Miracle” is heard in the background. It is a profound picture of hope, love, and liberation that subtly foreshadows the tragic loss to come.
At her memorial Diana’s brother, Charles, chastised the Royal Family and the media for their treatment of Lady Spencer:
She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers. I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling. My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this — a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.