A captivating dark fantasy with some incongruent moments of positivity.
|Pablo Larrain opens Spencer with the title card “a fable from a true tragedy”; inviting the audience to forget their biographical notions and watch a very dark fantasy about the legend that Diana became, as opposed to the real person Diana was. It’s a royal family Christmas where no one is happy, especially Diana, and they are going to torture her until she breaks.||2021 |
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Screenplay by: Steven Knight
Starring: Kristen Stewart
Some of the movie is real – the archaic tradition of weighing people before and after Christmas, but a lot of it takes place in Diana’s mind. Has reality been distorted for the audience or has Diana distorted reality for herself? I’m sure she didn’t actually eat the pearls that she ripped from her neck and landed in her soup after built-up stress at the rigidity of the royal family. But she really did make the family wait for the dessert course as she was in the bathroom throwing up her previous meal.
Kristen Stewart has experience playing a young beautiful starlet whose life in the public eye throws her private life in a downward spiral, undone by agonizing stress and anxiety. I’m referring to Seberg (2019). A couple years later Stewart is even more in-tune with representing both sides of Diana: the flawlessly beautiful woman who could float into a room, smile and change the axis of revolution if just for a moment; and the tortured Diana a woman who can no longer just grin-and-bear-it when it comes to her overly critical in-laws. Stewart is effortlessly both as Diana loses her sanity as she fights for how she thinks she should be treated.
The choice of Steven Knight as screenwriter is a critical one. His prominent movies, primarily Locke and Pawn Sacrifice and recently Locked Down, all explore a lead character(s) struggling with the moral consequences of past actions. He specializes in internal struggles of characters who have helped create the prison they live in. Something that I think is crucial to remember in Spencer is that Diana chose this life. She probably couldn’t predict the extent of the nightmare, but she would have known the cruelty behind their rigid traditions and married into the family anyways.
Even this fictionalized Diana is not a perfect princess. She’s whiny, and selfish and stubborn, and purposely does things to make life harder for the help just because she feels like it. But the abuse she experiences is perhaps worse – non-stop unsubtle comments about her weight, and then criticizing her for her bulimia, and not offering medical help. Every choice she made was criticized and her family viewed her as a nuisance instead of a human being.
The fantasy-like elements of the film is where it shines. Diana, often still wearing her Christmas best, sneaks out of the castle at night. Her white dresses glide above the green lawn, wet with fog; the sweeping cinematography capturing all of that. Diana breaking through the fence and walking the mile to her old childhood home. Her, a broken person, who remembers her childhood idolizing the royal family she eventually married into, and now at 30 with two sons, a broken marriage, a husband she hates (side note: Jack Farthing was really good with how subtly he portrayed Charles), interacting with the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and wondering if it’s too late to get out before they kill her.
Spencer is much better when it’s dark. After all, Diana’s life is one of tragedy. My issues with the film are all in the more light-hearted moments. Diana’s favourite dresser (a completely made-up person) confesses her love for her, and Diana laughs. It feels out of place. As does the ending. We know where Diana’s life is headed, but the film chooses to lead up to a completely random, almost insignificant moment to let Diana ride off in the sun. Choosing positivity; but it just feels very disingenuous to the intensity and stress of the rest of the movie and the rest of her life.