Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Spencer Depicts a Princess on the Verge

The Kristen Stewart-led Princess Diana biopic is a cut above your typical cultural revisionism
Image: Pablo Larraín/NEON (courtesy of Ginsberg/Libby)
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The Kristen Stewart-starring biopic Spencer is not Princess Diana’s first time at the rodeo—the rodeo, in this case, being the reappraisal machine buzzing loudly right now in a pop culture that seeks new insights by examining old news. Diana is a favorite topic, in fact, though the ultimate example is probably Britney Spears and her treatment during the mid-aughts. At its worst, according to a recent piece on Gawker, this kind of media picking apart supposedly prevailing narratives via the clarity of 20/20 hindsight leaves its consumers with “a rather Whiggish theory of history, wherein the past of each incident and the comparatively enlightened present exist as points A and B on an arc of inevitable progress.” Making things go down easy for entertainment purposes, though, does disservice to an audience’s intellect. Little beyond the actual alphabet is as simple as A-to-B.

How much is there actually to be gleaned from revisiting the broad strokes of Diana’s life beyond reminiscence, or straightforward knowledge for those who weren’t there or paying attention at the time? A five-episode arc of the popular podcast You’re Wrong About in 2020 relied on a lot of existing information regarding the princess, including Tina Brown’s definitive biography The Diana Chronicles. If you read that mammoth tome, well, you weren’t actually wrong about much, but it’s fascinating subject matter to revisit all the same. (Less fascinating: Diana: The Musical.) A Princess Diana biopic could easily get away with telling us what we already know, going a typical Oscarbait route for no reason more compelling than it being the right time of year. But luckily for us all, Spencer has other designs and a much more shrewd purview.

Spencer, like its director Pablo Larraín’s previous biopic Jackie, is a small film about a big legend. The movie, written by Steven Knight, is a rather narrow glimpse back in time that spans just a few days in Diana’s life, around Christmas 1991. They aren’t mentioned in the film, but in real life, the surreptitiously recorded conversations between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in one instance and Princess Diana and James Gilbey in another, which would be leaked in a few years’ time and become the “Tampongate” and “Squidgygate” scandals respectively, had already taken place. Relations between the royal spouses had cooled to the point of emotional (if not quite proximal) estrangement and an overall chill had set in—as represented in Spencer by the repeatedly mentioned coldness of Sandringham, the country house where the royal family spends their Christmas holiday in the film. (Incidentally, Sandringham is where Diana’s Squidgygate conversation had been recorded, almost certainly by someone on the inside, according to Brown’s book.)

Similarly, there may have been resentment directed at Diana from within the greater family for having been voted the most popular member in opinion polls in 1991—she had made her mark frequently on her terms. With this background in mind, it’s little wonder that Spencer is among the coldest Christmas movies of all time (at least since Eyes Wide Shut). A yule log would freeze over in this company. If you thought spending time with your in-laws sucked, just think about what it would be like with the added burden of royal formality. Publicly, it functioned like this, according to Brown:

Being a member of the royal family is a purely gestural role whose only power is how well that gesture is made. Much of what royals do for their considerable perks is either desperately dull or supremely depressing. For most people it would be like thinking of the worst aspects of your job and only doing the bits that bore you the most: sucking up to clients, say, or attending soul-destroying sales dinners with no prospect, ever, of retirement.

Privately, per Spencer, it was a series of prescribed wardrobe changes for a litany of scheduled meals and other events. Spencer finds its deliciousness in the tension between the royals’ public lives and what was really going on in their effective isolation behind the scenes. In fact, the film is so firmly entrenched backstage that Diana doesn’t so much as exchange words with Charles (Jack Farthing) until midway through the movie, on Christmas morning. So much of Spencer takes place behind closed doors, as Stewart’s Diana copes with the responsibilities foisted on her and fumbles for contact (her Royal Dresser Maggie, played by the perpetually underrated Sally Hawkins, provides one of her few chances for human connection…until she is sent away, further isolating Diana).

The clash between Diana’s interior life and her royal responsibilities is most vividly illustrated in her relationship to food. Diana, famously, battled a virulent eating disorder and, per Spencer and elsewhere, that elicited very little consideration on the part of her in-laws and husband. According to tradition, guests were made to weigh in upon arriving at Sandringham, with the expectation that they’d gain 3 lbs., to show they’d enjoyed their time. This is a rather narrow view of enjoyment, and the imperative to eat regularly and in excess causes Diana considerable distress in Spencer.

In scenes presenting heightened emotions, Larraín tends toward the surreal and melodramatic, shooting his film from beyond its ostensible framing to transcendence. As Diana forces down soup, the pearl necklace that Charles gave her (“exactly the same” as the one he bought Camila, she notes earlier) bursts off her and she eats one. She stumbles to the bathroom in a pronounced forearm-on-forehead distressed stroll that is well within the bounds of camp. (Elsewhere, Diana sees visions of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was similarly vilified by the institution of royalty.) Stewart’s performance is studied and self-conscious—it feels like a performance, perhaps a performance of a performance, but this dovetails with the demands on Diana to perform. It’s not an absolute facsimile (though the puffy ’91 hair that Stewart rocks is a ringer for Diana’s), but I stopped seeing her as Stewart extremely early on and just saw Diana. She nails the sensitivity of someone who was recognized as being extraordinarily emotionally intelligent (while routinely referring to herself as “thick as a plank”).

Part of Stewart’s credibility has to do with how well her character’s plight is conveyed. Spencer is a psychodrama with the thrust of a thriller. Will Diana escape the confines of Sandringham, and how much will of her own will she have to exert to make it happen? Knight’s script affords her a happy ending that is striking in its mundanity and saddening in its fleeting nature. After all, we are well aware of Diana’s ultimate ending.

In a cultural context of revisiting and revisiting some more, Spencer is a best-case scenario. As a fictionalized narrative, it itches at spots that a documentary couldn’t reach, and it conveys certain emotional truths that more straightforward attempts might gloss over. It gives a big story little details and helps us understand the great sadness welling just below the surface of a fairytale. It’s uncommonly relevant—though Meghan Markle’s experience differed considerably from Diana’s (the racism she alleged being a major factor in her rupture with the royal family), here’s an illustration of how one could grow disenchanted with the demands and formality, for anyone who’s still confused. For the rest of us who care even vaguely about the nature of celebrity, Spencer is a highly useful text. The enormity of fame—so wide you can’t get around it, so low you can’t get under it, so high you can’t get over it—means our collective processing is necessarily perpetual. If only all processing were as sensitive and vivid as Spencer.