By Simran Hans
Dir. Pablo Larraín, U.S./UK/Chile, Neon
In Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, Diana, Princess of Wales teeters on the precipice of a crumbling antique staircase, in her childhood home. The moment, which occurs late in the film, evokes a bleak anecdote Diana Spencer shared with the journalist and biographer Andrew Morton, about throwing herself down a staircase while pregnant in the winter of 1981 (whether the fall was accidental remains a matter of contention). Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight see that image’s potential for metaphor, transposing it a decade later to December 1991. This casual disregard for historical accuracy is revealing of the film’s cheeky anti-biopic intentions. A fable from a true tragedy, a title card announces.
This Diana, portrayed by Kristen Stewart, is a woman in crisis; suffering from an eating disorder, dissected by the media, and a year away from divorcing the cheating father of her two children. The film takes place over the Christmas period at Sandringham House, the Royal Family’s country estate in Norfolk. “It’s just three days,” Diana reassures herself. And really, from the outside, it doesn’t look like such a bad place to spend them. The surrounding frost-covered fields glitter underneath a fine gauze of mist. But inside the house, it’s even colder. Diana complains that the heating hasn’t been switched on.
The Windsors are notorious for their chilly receptions; in 2020 Diana’s youngest son, Harry, and his American wife, Meghan Markle, felt so frozen out they announced that they would be formally stepping down from their Royal duties. Diana’s story, of a vivacious young woman goaded by the press, gawked at by the public, and muzzled by her in-laws, feels like a historical precedent for Meghan’s treatment. Both women exposed the creakiness of the monarchy by infiltrating and then leaving it. Larraín’s “fable” makes explicit the myriad reasons for doing so.
Although the film takes place on palace turf, the Royal family feels like an incidental presence. Diana is often alone. Her husband, Charles, Prince of Wales (Jack Farthing), is just like his mother; inscrutable, taciturn, on hand to offer periodic wisps of discouragement. “You look fine,” he tells his wife, one of the character’s only lines in the film. A pistachio green silk dress doesn’t suit her mood. On Christmas Day, she’s dressed as a present likely to remain unwrapped, her ballgown tied with a bow. “Beauty’s useless,” she decrees.
Nearly 25 years after her death, Larraín can’t quite resist the urge to retrofit his aristocratic heroine with a modern sense of agency. There’s something timeless about the image of The People’s Princess (as former Prime Minister Tony Blair christened her), duty-bound and trapped, isolated in her freezing ivory tower with its heavy curtains sewn shut, and the choice to depict her ripping them open is decidedly 21st century. Her acts of defiance are amplified by Knight’s screenplay; so too is her pain.
“They’re pulling my legs off, and my wings, one by one, to see how I react,” Diana tells Sandringham’s head butler, of the public scrutiny. “I watch to make sure others cannot see,” assures Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), who has her under constant surveillance at home, too. But it’s not exactly that Diana wants to hide—a paradox Stewart portrays with true empathy. No stranger to this sort of attention herself, she plays Diana as anxious and preening, always anticipating an audience. The actress is a petite 5’4” to the real Diana’s statuesque 5’10”, but she gets around this by channeling her character’s signature slouch. At mass on Christmas Day and confronted by a sea of paparazzi, Stewart’s stooped physicality and tense, jutting jaw seem to demur, don’t look at me. Yet when she ducks her head coquettishly, blue eyes peering up through long lashes, it’s as though she’s inviting the flirtatious attention she is denied at home. Unlike Sandringham’s silent, deserted corridors, the clicking cameras are, for her, a comfort.
It’s an image that brings to mind Larraín’s 2016 film Jackie, another anti-biopic about a fragile, upper-class loner who knew how to play to the lens. In that film, Natalie Portman’s Jacqueline Onassis looked straight into the camera and in an instant of pure, full-throated camp, purred, “I love crowds.” In many ways Spencer and Jackie are kindred spirits; they both feature discordant, atonal scores, tactile filmstock, montages of their well-dressed women twirling in designer clothes. Still, something about Portman’s Jackie felt off; the performance was shrill, too breathy, arch to a fault. Jackie was celebrated for her poise rather than her vulnerability. Larraín’s unforgiving extreme close-ups and Portman’s calculated ugly-crying should work together to emphasize her humanity. Instead, they turn her into a graceless cartoon.
Stewart, on the other hand, sells her character’s state of mind. Her performance pierces the script’s inclination towards melodrama. In one overripe yet delicious (or more accurately, disgusting) scene, Diana stares tentatively at a bowl of pea soup. Her companions eat in silence. Diana claws at her throat, strangled by the obligation to pretend that everything is fine. A string of fat pearls is the albatross around her neck. Charles, it turns out, bought his mistress the same necklace. The choker breaks; pearls scatter into the soup. In a brilliant bit of theater, she eats it anyway, crunching and swallowing, the residual mess ringing her mouth. The effort is too much. The bulimic Diana staggers to the bathroom and makes herself sick.
The bombastic symbolism shouldn’t work. And yet each time the film dispenses with decorum, Larraín’s troublemaking intentions rise to the surface, a middle finger to the received protocol of respectfully representing the Royals. As Diana’s dresser and sole confidante Maggie (Sally Hawkins) puts it, it is a princess’s job to “stand very still and smile a lot.” Neither Larraín nor his subject agree to play ball. The film’s Diana is restless, fidgety, and emotional. She goes on night walks and bounds across fields. “I wish to masturbate,” she tells a dresser, shooing them away from her bedroom in an unexpected flash of comedy. Never mind that, behind closed doors, it’s a wire cutter she reaches for, not a vibrator. The film’s occasional outbursts of exuberance and silly transgression are in keeping with Diana’s disobedience. A Christmas present purchased at a petrol station, or a solo midnight stroll are subversive, sure—provided you’re a princess.
It’s when Knight’s screenplay insists on foreshadowing Diana’s tragic death that it begins to belabor the point. In the film’s opening, a partridge stands guilelessly in the middle of the road before being promptly flattened by a truck. He has Diana thumb a biography of Anne Boleyn (“The Life and Death of a Martyr,” its subtitle reads). In case the resonance required further stating, she imagines herself as the beheaded queen, floating down the hallway in full costume. It’s telling that when we first meet Diana, she’s driving.
This image, of Diana behind the wheel, bookends the film. It was being chauffeured that killed her. In the car, racing back to London, with William and Harry in the back seat, Mike + the Mechanics’ 1985 pop hit “All I Need Is a Miracle” blares from the stereo. Diana drives herself off into the sunset, freer than she’s ever been. Larraín’s alternate ending has her speeding away from her demise, not toward it.