I asked a friend, a regular movie companion, to come and see Spencer with me, and she replied that she most definitely did not want to see another movie about THAT woman.
Meaning the late Princess Diana, who continues to exert a powerful influence over the popular imagination, and of whom there have been countless portrayals in popular culture. I looked them up and realise that I missed all but what I think I can safely say are the three main ones.
There was Naomi Watts’ portrayal in 2013’s Diana, for which she was nominated for a Razzie. I think that was unfair. Watts did a passable job, even if the movie itself was a lightweight cash-in on Diana’s celebrity.
Then there was Emma Corrin’s role as Diana in Season 4 of The Crown. I’m a fan of The Crown, which deals intelligently with the personal, social and political dramas that have affected the royal family since the present Queen got to wear the titular headwear. I’m looking forward to seeing Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal of the doomed princess in Season 5.
In Spencer she is played by American actress Kristen Stewart, who sounds like she’s had lot of dialogue coaching to get that accent right and doesn’t quite nail it, in my view.
But setting aside who is or isn’t the best screen Diana, what sets Spencer apart from more conventional representations is the outsider perspective of Chilean director Pablo Larrain. He describes his film as ‘a fable from a true tragedy’, and there’s confabulation galore in it, some of it downright surreal. Magical realism abounds in Latin American literature and cinema, and I should state at the outset my, um, distaste for it.
Spencer covers three days in 1991 during the Royal Family’s annual Christmas holidays at Sandringham. Diana’s arrival, late and without her official escort, has already thrown the household into annoyed confusion, and things go downhill from there.
Her next misdeed is to refuse to take part in the family Christmas tradition of the weighing game, ‘a bit of fun’ allegedly started by Prince Albert to make sure the family enjoyed themselves by eating up and getting fatter. There really is such a tradition and as we know, Diana was then in the grip of a serious eating disorder, so as a plot device it’s a good way for Larrain to trigger Diana’s descent into a kind of breakdown.
There’s another trigger: Charles’ gift of a set of pearls identical to one she knows he’s given Camilla. Thereafter she keeps them all waiting at mealtimes (the Queen has to come in last), sulks, scowls, refuses to eat, purges what she does eat, binge-eats then purges again, refuses to wear the chosen wardrobe, demands her favourite dresser, masturbates, leaves her curtains open (there are rumours of paps in the grounds), sneaks out at night in her nightclothes to the great consternation of royal minders and even interrupts the royal shoot by stalking across the field and demanding to take her sons away with her.
How much of this is true we just don’t know and from Larrain’s point of view it doesn’t matter. He has talked about freeing his vision from ‘the prison of historical truth’, and fair enough, we’ve seen enough documentaries about Princess D. He’s more interested in depicting the inner mental turmoil of a woman on the brink of insanity, and he does so by taking us inside Diana’s nightmarish hallucinations so that sometimes we don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.
Obviously Diana isn’t really meeting a reincarnated Anne Boleyn in the corridors of Sandringham, but Is she really crunching on those pearls she’s let fall into her soup?
Pablo Larrain made Jackie (2016), set in the days following JFK’s assassination. Whether he intended it or not, I found his Jackie Kennedy an unsympathetic character, shrill and shrewish. Partway through Spencer I thought the same thing: if he wants me to feel sorry for this silly, entitled creature who wants to have her cake and eat it too, I’m not buying it. But then the surrealism kicked in and I was reminded of Repulsion – Roman Polanski’s classic depiction of a woman descending into psychosis.
Like Polanski, Larrain artfully mixes the obviously real with the possibly imaginary. Among the real scenes are her affectionate, playful interactions with the young princes. These are the only scenes where she appears untroubled, if disturbingly childlike. When Maggie the dresser declares her love, this makes Diana happy, but is it a figment of her imagination? Did they really canoodle?
Maggie’s is one of the few significant speaking roles. She’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, as is the head cook, with whom Diana also has friendly interaction. The only other significant speaking role is that of security boss Major Alastair Gregory, played by Timothy Spall. They all, at various stages, try to warn her about her reckless behaviour, but Gregory, who is also the Queen Mother’s equerry, has no time for Diana’s vaporings and she sees him as being in the enemy camp.
The enemy being, of course, the Royal Family. They barely figure as individual people and, apart from the children, have almost nothing to say. Charles has two speaking appearances, in both of which he is cold and hostile. The Queen has one line, and Princess Anne makes an inconsequential comment in a distant shot during the weighing game. Otherwise they are portrayed as almost catatonically uptight. But is this meant to be just the way Diana sees them?
Camilla Parker-Bowles – a slyly threatening figure – is seen but not heard at the church service on Christmas morning, when the Royals traditionally show themselves to the assembled ravenous media pack. They too are Diana’s enemy, and their frenzied lunge at her is genuinely scary. For once reality coincides with the view from inside her nightmare. This powerful scene is a foreboding climax to what is in the end a strange, slow-moving, sometimes baffling and sometimes tedious movie.
But if you like that kind of thing…..