Spencer (2021)

Dir. Pablo Larrain. Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins

Spoilers for a recent film, but one of the best things about Spencer is that I’m not sure it can actually be spoiled in any meaningful way.

In the first few minutes of the movie, a fleet of Land Rovers drives perilously close to the corpse of a pheasant on the road to Sandringham. The pheasant is never quite run over; the wheels of the cars on the drivers’ sides nearly get some tail feathers, but on the whole they leave the sad little cadaver unruffled. This is one of the metaphors of the film. Diana (Stewart) is the pheasant, a metaphor that’s obvious from the first appearance of the critter but which the film will go to great, great pains to make clear by the end. And the caravan of Land Rovers are the royal family, or perhaps just Royalty and Fame generally. No single Land Rover actually touches that bird, but goodness knows they come close, and it’s only a matter of time and physics until something splatters the pheasant into a maggot buffet. It’s not such a bad metaphor, all things considered—certainly it’s less tortured than the literal ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) showing up later on—but it’s undercut by the fact of its filming. In order to execute such a shot, there must be great planning on the set, a clear line for the drivers to take, an exact position for the camera. The precision of the shot undercuts its effectiveness, for it’s not the Land Rovers or Royalty or even Fame which threaten the pheasant Diana, but the film itself. The claustrophobia of the film is not in the strangulation of Diana’s comfort or the overwhelming, oppressive sound of Jonny Greenwood’s score. It’s in the film itself, with a screenplay that is so overbearing and so endlessly didactic that it’s one “Here comes the plane!” away from resembling a five-month-old’s dinner.

Why is Diana an imperiled pheasant? Why is she Anne Boleyn? Because the movie likes her that way, darn it, and in so doing she is condescended to, up to the point where even an actress as good as Kristen Stewart is unable to find her personality. I hoped that this would be a Pablo Larrain movie, similar to Jackie, which used a similarly small frame to find an unorthodox portrait of a woman in the political spotlight. What happened instead was a Steven Knight movie, who I know best via Serenity, and who brings a similar disregard for dramatic heft or emotional verisimilitude to this screenplay. Knight has written a movie for ten reels but which only has enough ideas for one. Twice Diana snaps the same string of pearls with much the same sort of effect, as both times it frees her from an oppressive thought. Twice Diana is overwhelmed to the point of weeping in front of others as music from Greenwood’s score veritably thunders over the sequence; I wonder if they might not take exactly as long from start to finish. We’re well short of a motif here; all this works as is self-plagiarism. It’s a shame, too, because the first time out they’re relatively effective. As Diana breaks the pearls the first time and scarfs them down from her very green soup, music blaring, I had the thought that I was watching something reminiscent of Rebecca. Suffice it to say that Alfred Hitchcock varied his signifiers of anxiety for his female star with more aplomb than Larrain manages later on.

People wrong Diana over and over again in this picture, with microaggressions or tacit disapproval or expectations she doesn’t want to fulfill. It’s clear that Diana can never be wrong in this formulation, can never actually hurt anyone else. The closest she comes to doing so is in one scene where she cannot quite rouse herself for a family occasion and runs into William’s (Jack Nielen) bathroom. William pleads with his mother as coolly as he can for her to calm down, come out, be ready. She comes out and then almost immediately runs back into the bathroom while he stays at the door, whining as sadly as any puppy. Perhaps it’s possible to imagine her wronging her son, but I don’t think the film really sees it that way. The Crown, Royalty, Fame is wronging her son, and she is just the instrument that is being used for the purpose of doing harm on and on down the line. In a sense, the film is a little too wise, a little too cognizant of Diana’s future, a little too aware of her most iconic fashion statements. Whether it’s in this sense that Harry (Freddie Spry) and especially William’s futures are being written in this Christmas holiday, or the way that we get a little fashion show in an otherwise inexplicable sequence at her childhood home, there’s too much “Candle in the Wind 1997” in Spencer, down to the suspicious feeling that we’ve heard this all done better sometime before.

Over and over again, someone will tell Diana that she needs to be a different person in her own life than she is in this official setting. There’s a quiet conversation with Elizabeth (Stella Gonet) where they talk about becoming currency. Diana’s preferred dresser, Maggie (Hawkins) encourages her not to let the royals get the real her. The chief at Sandringham, Major Gregory (Spall), does the rare double-parable, as what begins with a story about a wild horse turns into a story about taking a literal bullet for the Crown. The best of these is almost certainly the one with her husband, Charles (Jack Farthing), who despite his infidelity and cold fish qualities doesn’t seem like all that bad a sort. There’s an empathy that he has that even Maggie doesn’t quite share with Diana. Don’t you have another person you pretend to be in front of the cameras? he asks. I have that person, there’s me for myself and then there’s the other me for the other life. It’s sort of an interesting conversation, but it’s one that even the movie grants is completely ridiculous to imagine in this late stage of the marriage. (Speaking as an American under the age of 40, I consider it my patriotic duty not to have any concern for the lives of the British royals and thus I am not all that sure of when, exactly, this is supposed to have happened.) Was there no conversation about what might happen when Diana married into the royal family? Did she think she would wear that wedding dress and it would be forgotten about within the month? Did she think that she would simply go on living a carefree life while “Princess of Wales” appeared by her name? It’s a ridiculous conversation, a ludicrous conversation, somehow even nuttier than Maggie confessing that she’s in love with Diana while they sit on the beach together later in the film.

If we are meant to believe that Diana thought that she was going to be able to lead a basically normal life, one where she did not have the scrutiny of tabloids or regular folks upon her, then she really is a child and not a woman. It’s sad that smoking two packs a day killed Humphrey Bogart when he was in his mid-50s, but what could he have expected? It’s sad that marrying Charles is destroying Diana’s sanity, but what could she have expected? The film, with a libertarian’s blissful ignorance, treats cause as enigma and reacts wildly to effect. Here the tight frame of this single three-day stretch works against the film, trusting in our foreknowledge of Diana and her bloody treatment by her in-laws and the scandal rags rather than providing a solid case. It’s hard not to see Diana as the total wreck that Charles and company will later submit to the world that she is. If she is as poorly off as she appears here, then Sandringham is as inappropriate a place for her to be as any other than is outside the direct care of mental health professionals. Unfettered bulimia, depression, profound anxiety, mood swings. How much help she needs, and how little anything she can do, no amount of dancing in fancy dresses and no number of snapped pearl necklaces, will do for it. If there is one thing that seems clear, it’s that there’s nothing the royal family can even do for her at this point; if Charles were to offer the name of a good shrink, one could hardly blame Diana for crumpling it up.

The film opens with the label that it is a “fable from a true tragedy,” which is a fairly incredible display of sanctimony. I think one decides pretty early if the fable (and what fable would take longer than one reel?) is tragic or not. Major Gregory is at the door to weigh everyone who comes in, a tradition that dates back to Edward VII. I think some looks askance at this particular tradition are entirely in order, especially considering that it’s not all that old. I think we are also meant to feel, especially as the film goes on, that this kind of sport is tailor-made to embarrass and freak out Diana in particular; I’ll grant that freely. But you know what else is a stupid tradition that has no place in the late 20th Century? The British monarchy. The power that Diana does possess in this film is to ennoble and warm the little people: Maggie, the head chef Darren (Sean Harris), the police officers who find her wandering the grounds one night, the pub full of people enjoying fish and chips when she comes in to ask for directions. If she were simply Diana Spencer, as the film insists she is when she’s at her best, then this magical power would be entirely absent from her quiver. Diana is tortured because of her royal status, Spencer finds, and heck, so do I. But is Diana special outside of that status? The movie seems to believe she is, but I don’t know how it comes to that perspective without a heaping dose of nostalgia. People still make fun of the ’84 Dune for having the pamphlet so people would know what was happening; it’s not too late for AMCs and Regals to give out photocopies of the worst articles on Diana from The Sun or The Daily Mirror.

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