‘Spencer’: A punch to the gut
What we get in ‘Spencer’ is not more of Diana, but a rare glimpse into the pain she must have felt when the whole world was complicit in it. The feeling of suffocation Diana constantly fights throughout the film disarms the audience at every turn
Just when we were beginning to think that nothing new could be said about Princess Diana, comes “Spencer,” director Pablo Larraín’s self-described “fable from a true tragedy.” Cinephiles, Diana fans across generations, fans of the indie queen Kristen Stewart, fans of Larraín’s companion piece “Jackie” were all ready at the ticket counters when the film hit the theaters early November.
The anticipation for “Spencer” was already ripe, beginning with the unveiling of the poster late this summer, then the teaser and the trailers coming to screens, not to mention the rave reviews upon its premiere in Venice Film Festival in September. Countless red-carpet footage, along with countless interviews with Kristen Stewart (who plays a soul-stirring Diana) played to the newfound popularity of Princess Diana, following her introduction to new generations with the fourth season of Netflix’s award-sweeper “The Crown” around a year ago.
Moving from the ticket counters to the screening, we were well aware of what we were about to watch. Or were we? At first look, the anticipating audience had more than enough information about the film: A reimagining of three fateful days when Diana spends the Christmas with the Royal Family at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate and decides to end her marriage. Little did we know that we knew very little on what kind of a cinematic experience “Spencer” was offering.
The Diana of celluloid, for years, was the sensationalized or sugar-coated (sometimes, both) documentaries, the same imagery (the revenge dress) and the footage (“There were three of us in this marriage.”) replayed over and over for some guilty fun. The more recent portrayal of her younger days in “The Crown” (by newcomer Emma Corrin) hadn’t taken us to anywhere new, very much in line with the tradition of the series where the Royal family is depicted under a sympathetic light, accepted, and understood, and where emotions are rendered as mere nuisance.
Peering behind the couture
That’s why “Spencer,” all the more, comes as a punch to the gut, exposing something we’d spared Diana for decades in pop culture: The feeling of unbearable suffocation. “Spencer” is no lightweight take on portrayal of an unhappy woman and an unhappy marriage, or the inhospitable nature of the Royal family, flourished with 90s’ fashion. Although it’s all there to attract us in the first place, enticing the pop culture consumers to get more of Diana.
What we get is not more of Diana, but a rare glimpse into the pain she must have felt when the whole world was complicit in it. The feeling of suffocation Diana constantly fights throughout the film disarms the audience at every turn, many times in familiar territory. It’s everywhere. At a dinner table surrounded by the Royal family that is stripped of names, words, and smiles. At her now-decrepit childhood home, a pearl necklace (a reminder of her husband’s infidelity) choking her. In her room, with the curtains sewn together to let the peering paparazzi (and a glimpse of the sun) out. Out in the garden, with wire cutters in her hand, reminiscent of a prisoner about to escape.
The semblance to a prisoner is no coincidence. We are constantly asked to compare Diana to one. Her meticulously lined dresses for the weekend read “P.O.W.” The acronym for Princess of Wales could as well be one for Prisoner of War. The psychological drama follows a demanding narrative, the occasional hallucinations and Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score keeping the audience at the edge of their seats throughout.
“Spencer” is an exercise in voyeurism, but not a familiar one with the low-pixel shots of Diana in immaculate couture. Larraín (and Stewart) invite us to peer behind the couture, and beyond the words now associated with Diana, like self-harm, infidelity, bulimia, and motherhood. They invite us to truly empathize with a tragic figure, almost a mythological one. “Spencer” is not a guilty pleasure as one would expect from a Diana biopic, but a cinematic masterpiece that leaves the audience heavy-hearted, guilty, and embarrassed.