Goodbye, England’s Rose: The Tragedy of Pablo Larraín's "Spencer"

Princess Diana follows Jackie Kennedy as a subject for Pablo Larraín to explore the pressures of fame and gender with historical hindsight.
Bedatri D.Choudhury


Stardom and celebrity are not finite objects that lessen when divided and disseminated, and I was all of 8 when I learnt that. In 1997, when Princess Diana died, I was home in Calcutta and it was my first experience of an event that threw an entire country into an extended period of public mourning. That year, “Diana dresses” made their way into all our wardrobes and our mothers insisted upon us getting the “Diana haircut.” Such was the legacy of the people’s princess in a former colony that her people bled dry; her celebrity growing with every replica, her posthumous power growing every time her image was reproduced, becoming more and more magical and mythical. With every copy and copy of a copy, grew the mystique around the “world’s most beautiful woman,” and the immense grief around the tragedies that defined her life: her failed, loveless marriage and her completely avoidable death.

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer calls itself “a fable from a true tragedy,” and it is his attempt to, as he said ahead of the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, make a film that his mother would like. “...I wondered why Diana had created such a level of empathy. It’s a very complex answer,” he said. It is perhaps to demystify this answer that Larraín tries to incorporate elements of melodrama and horror, but ends up creating a heavy-handed fictional reimagination of the days that lead up to the Princess’ decision to walk out of her crumbling marriage with a cheating husband. Even though the answer to why Diana enjoys the world’s empathy is complex, Larraín chooses to go looking for it in ways that lack nuance and, often, empathy from him and the screenwriter, Steven Knight.

With Jackie (2016), Larraín created a somewhat-historical fiction about Jackie Kennedy focussing on her life during the week after JFK’s assassination. In what is becoming somewhat a signature style of grounding a reimagined biopic within a specific few days of the protagonist’s life,  Spencer is about the Christmas of 1991 that Diana spends with her sons and cruel in-laws at the royal residence of the Sandringham House. Within the stifling and claustrophobic house, every minute of Diana’s day is calibrated to align with some form of antiquated authority and discipline. Outside, the press stands at alert, ready to pounce on her. Although Larraín focuses on these three days of Diana’s life, these are supposed to serve as a stand-in for everything that has come before in her life, and everything that will follow.

From the very first scene, the film doesn’t quite trust its audience to understand nuances. Kristen Stewart as Lady Diana drives an open-hooded Ferrari the same shade of green as her skirt; she looks quizzically at a map. We are just getting used to seeing Stewart in a role we have seen many actors assay before (most recently, quite impressively, by The Crown’s Emma Corrin) when the weak screenplay begins its ham. Diana struts into an eatery tucked away in nowhere, rural England and announces she is lost and doesn’t know the way to Sandringham; something that was already amply clear. There is a foreboding sense of doom hanging in the air—partly because we all know how the story of Diana’s life unfolds—but Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight throw in a (literal) bird dying on the dirt road for good measure. All this before the princess has reached Sandringham, awfully late for a Christmas Eve dinner.

“Diana created such a level of empathy because she was just normal,” Larraín remarked in Venice, and every time the screenplay tries to reinforce this “normalcy” in the character, it takes Diana further and further away from the audience’s sympathies. Hers is a free spirit that has been trapped in a gilded cage and the film is meant to show us how that suffocates her and inflicts deep, psychological trauma upon a loving mother, a dedicated wife. Her put-together public life (protecting the sanctity of which eventually cost her life) is a sham, and the mental turmoil she is in is obvious and something the audience knows to expect. Diana’s struggle with an eating disorder has been widely-known but, sadly, a grave illness becomes a tool for Larraín and Knight to show that she is “cracking.” Out of despair, Diana cuts herself with a wire cutter, constantly makes herself sick, takes off a scarecrow’s jacket and talks to it. The script does her immense distress a disservice by never fully dwelling on the deep sorrow that underlines all of these symptoms—as a result, they come across as whimsical ticks. Diana is so scared of the royal family wringing the lifeblood out of her that she likens herself to Ann Boleyn, but this debilitating fear is reduced to being expressed as a whimsical costume party and the princess playing around with gigantic pearls. Taken out of context of the rest of her life, Princess Diana is reduced to being a huffy, pouty, forever-complaining, “difficult” royal wife. Presumably inadvertently, the film presents to the audience a grocery list of reasons why Princess Diana would be fairly impossible to live with, even for a much-resented man like Prince Charles. Larraín assumes we will feel bad for his Diana because we've always felt bad for the real Diana, but he doesn’t quite do the work of making his Diana as complex and contradictory as the real woman we’ve built our stories around. The condensing of her whole life into these three days, and filling these days with winks and nudges towards everything that is to come in her life, leads to the flattening of Diana’s inherent mystery.  

Kristen Stewart’s own elusive celebrity adds to the untouchable grandeur that Princess Diana symbolizes for many. Within a script that gives her very little to chew on, she tries her best to embody a woman whose mythical and ageless stardom is difficult to contain. The fantastic cinematographer Claire Mathon films Spencer like a gothic horror film, creating a claustrophobic tightness within the expanse of Sandringham, making evident the tight scrutiny that pins the princess down. Jonny Greenwood’s excellent score uses creepy free jazz to complement the aura of absolute chaos and disarray that marks the holiday for Diana, and the eeriness of Mathon’s photography. Jacqueline Durran’s costume design, too, creates impressive replicas of the greatest hits of Diana’s iconic costumes which go a long way in convincing us how good a Diana Stewart makes.

I do not necessarily think that subtlety is something necessary when telling a story. Nor is a commitment to “truth” when retelling the events of someone’s life. Spencer’s failing isn’t about how close or far it is from the objective truth of Diana’s life. It lies in the fact that, like the paparazzi that hounded her every waking hour, the film looks at the surface of her life and when it does try probing deeper, it doesn’t do it with much sincerity and reduces her to being a bag of stereotypes.

Diana’s decision to end her marriage is pivotal in her life as a public celebrity, in a way that adds to her credit and makes her more desirable and seemingly real to ordinary people. When she (very famously) made a public appearance in an off-shoulder little black “revenge” dress after Prince Charles’ confession of adultery, the world nodded in agreement with that immense power move. There is an effort in Spencer to make Diana seem like a middle-class British mom who listens to Mike & the Mechanics and eats at KFC. It might work as a poetic liberty but half of Diana's enigma lies in the fact that she was the daughter of an earl married to a prince. Larraín tells us a story we have known for years and are already looking beyond. Almost as a cop out, he relies too much on Diana’s existing giant fanbase to carry his retelling through. And after many good and bad regurgitations of the same story, they now know how to discern.   

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