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Non-Review Review: Spencer

Spencer introduces itself as “a fable based on a true tragedy.” The official synopsis describes the movie as “an imagining of what might have happened.”

The obvious point of comparison is Jackie. Both are movies directed by Pablo Larraín, offering a tightly-focused profile of their young, famous, female subjects. However, while Jackie is very much about a character who is cannily and carefully cultivating a mythology out of tragedy, Spencer is perhaps about a character failing to do just that. Jackie Kennedy was able to build the myth of “Camelot” in the wake of her husband’s death, a monument that would last generations. Spencer imagines its female protagonist crushed beneath the weight of a national myth, learning that “no one is above tradition.”

A sorry estate of affairs…

Diana Spencer remains a fascinating figure. She has a strong hold on popular culture. Her narrative is a driving force in the second half of The Crown. There was a spectacularly ill-judged attempt at a more conventional biopic with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana. Her ghost haunted The Queen. Diana is often described as “the people’s princess”, but there’s something unsettling even in that affectionate appelation. It is, after all, possessive. It opens up the question of whether Diana was every truly allowed to be herself, or was instead beholden to everybody else – the royals, the public, the ghosts of royal consorts past.

Spencer is very much a companion piece to Jackie, but it feels more like a ghost story. It is haunting and ethereal, its subject flinching even from Larraín’s gaze. The result is enchanting, but also deliberately and effectively frustrating. Spencer is a fable, complete with all the echoing space that such stories usually contain.

Christmas Mourning.

Spencer is set against the backdrop of Christmas 1991, with Diana visiting the royal estate at Sandringham. Appropriately enough, given the dark nights and the spirit of the season, the film takes on the quality of a ghost story. Diana wanders from the house at night, through open and foggy fields. She sees ghosts of past inhabitants stalking her. She finds herself drawn to her old childhood home, which has been boarded up and condemned. Christmas, as much as Halloween, feels like a time where the spirits can visit. A Christmas Carol is one of the earliest and most resonant of ghost stories, after all.

Of course, A Christmas Carol was also a story about the passage of time – the way in which the past is a road to the present, and the present points to the future. Early in Spencer, Diana sits with her children and attempts to explain some of the royal family traditions. William asks, “Why do we have to open our presents on Christmas Eve? Why not Christmas Day like everybody else?” Diana explains, “You know how in school you do tenses? The past, the present, the future?” She elaborates, “Here, there is only one tense. There is no future. The past and the present are the same thing.”

Lighten up.

Still, the future seems to bleed into Spencer. It is impossible to watch the movie without some sense of the “true tragedy” that is lurking in the future. Spencer gestures at it repeatedly. There are plenty of shots of Diana driving, often seeming either lost or confused – or lost in another world. When a member of staff points out that she will be late for sandwiches, Diana only half-jokingly replies, “Will they kill me, do you think?” In the movie’s opening sequence, the camera focuses on a dead pheasant in the middle of the road, as trucks drive over it with little regard or consideration.

Like any good fable, Spencer is loaded with symbolism. Diana is repeatedly likened to exotic creatures. When the chef describes the local pheasants as “beautiful but not very bright”, Diana recalls the particulars of a recent Vogue story. When Diana expresses her frustration with the hunting of pheasants, the chef assures her, “The ones that don’t get shot, they just get run over. They’re not very bright.” That gestures at Diana’s ultimate tragic fate – the road accident fleeing the paparazzi looking for just one more shot.

A time for reflection.

The pheasants are just the most obvious of the film’s animal imagery. When William asks his mother to name her favourite animal, Harry interjects with “lobster!”, referring to the toy that his mother bought him at the petrol station on the way to the estate. In some ways, the lobster is Diana herself, a creature slowly and surely being cooked and prepared for consumption. In contrast, Equerry Major Alistair Gregory is reminded of an old friend’s story of a wild horse “that couldn’t be tamed.” Appropriately enough, that story ends with a bullet. It also ends with ambiguity.

After all, if Diana is one of these wild creatures, then what are the royal family? The film keeps the royal family at arm’s length for most of the runtime. In the film’s opening stretches, they are treated as featured extras rather than actual characters. Key social events on Christmas Eve take place largely off camera. The opening of the Christmas presents is not shown, instead the camera follows Diana as she skulks back into the room to collect a gift from her husband – the same set of pearls that he bought for his mistress. When Charles does appear, he is singularly fixated on the pheasant hunt and the preparation of animals as food.

Will she play ball?

Spencer is ultimately the story of a woman struggling against the weight of an institution. Larraín shoots the movie in intense close-up, pressing in on Kristen Stewart in ways that feel almost invasive of his actor’s personal space. Even in wide shots, the camera is often pushing towards Diana, as if subjecting her to intense and impossible scrutiny. The framing often reinforces the sense that Diana is as trapped as any of those poor creatures; even the balls on a billiard table seem to point at her accusingly during a conversation with Charles.

“They can’t change,” her dresser warns her. “You have to change.” Charles tells her that being a member of the royal family involves some sort of duality and disassociation. They each have to be “two people.” The Queen tells her that the only portrait of her that matters is on the ten pound note, because it understands that these figures are ultimately “currency.” Even the chef warns Diana that any piece of self that she may share among the staff will be rendered as “currency.”

Dresser to impress her.

The film’s first glimpse inside the estate focuses on the kitchen. This makes sense, as this is where the wild game is prepared for public consumption. However, just above the centre of the frame, there is a sign visible. The styling and font, not to mention the setting, recall the stereotypical appeal to “keep calm and carry on.” However, the text itself reads, “Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you.” Silence is key here. That is what is expected. The royal family wants Diana’s passive complicity, her cooperation. One of the film’s pivotal battles involves the attempt to keep Diana’s curtains closed.

Spencer is very effective in capturing the sense of this ancient and unfeeling institution, unwilling and perhaps even unable to change in even the most modest of ways. When Diana arrives, she finds Harry wearing an absurd coat because he is cold. This is the absurdity of the institution, that would cloak a child “instead of turning up the heating.” Then again, this is the point. Spencer repeatedly comes back to the idea that even Diana’s body is subject to the crown’s demands.

A field in England.

Like any good fable, Spencer is driven primarily through symbols and metaphors. The movie is bookended with contemplation of a scarecrow standing watch over the field once owned by Diana’s father. The scarecrow is a prop. It is a facsimile of a human body, dressed in clothes to make it look more like a human being, and propped up in some grotesque charade. The film parallels Diana with the scarecrow twice, having her swap clothes – and perhaps functions – with it twice over the movie’s runtime.

Spencer repeatedly focuses on its subject’s eating disorder, her inability to keep down the food that the royal household is serving her. Charles finds this particularly offensive. “You have to be able to make your body do things that you hate,” he assures the mother of his own children. “For the good of the country.” Charles’ mother is obsessed with weighing Diana, like a piece of meat. In one particularly unsettling sequence, the pearls that Charles has bought his wife become a collar choking the young woman. They are as much a symbol of royal dominance as the severing of Anne Boleyn’s neck to appease King Henry VIII.

Close-up and personal.

There are points where Larraín tilts Spencer into full blown melodrama and horror, where dream and reality seem to collapse into one another. At times, Sandringham feels like the Overlook from The Shining. In one nightmarish sequence, the quartet accompanying dinner builds to a haunting crescendo as Diana has a full-on panic attack. There are times when it is hard to tell what is real and what is metaphor, even within a film that has branded itself a “fable”, and the film is all the more effective for that.

There’s a lot of very deliberate ambiguity in Spencer, to the point that the film’s closing moments feel in some ways like the third act of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It’s interesting to read Larraín’s take on the film’s final montage, which is set to Mike and the Mechanics’ singing “All I Need is a Miracle.” Are these moments of triumph, freedom and escape offering “a miracle” that verges on a “happily ever after”? Or are they all the more unsettling because they are illusory, suggesting nothing as much as the ending of a John Hughes film? Or is it worse, a false hope before an inevitable tragedy?

She certainly has drive.

Larraín leaves a lot of room for interpretation in the conclusion of Spencer, and there’s something both clever and fitting in that. After all, Diana was a figure whose entire life was overly narrativised and dramatised, and it is impossible for her to assert any real agency at this point. So the lingering ambiguity at the end of Spencer is perhaps a pragmatic and considered choice, a way of allowing Diana a story where her ending isn’t fixed and predetermined. For all that Jackie is about a woman trying to build a mythology, Spencer is about a woman trying to escape one.

If there is a weakness in Spencer, it is the script from Steven Knight. For all that Larraín lingers in the mystery and ambiguity of it all, Knight’s dialogue is conspicuously heavy-handed in places. This is particularly obvious in the film’s opening moments, before Diana arrives in Sandringham and the movie gets subsumed into its heightened reality. The opening scenes repeatedly emphasise how literally lost Diana is. “I have absolutely no idea where I am,” she confesses. “Where am I?” The kindly chef finds her near the house, and demands, “What the blood hell are you doing here, Diana?” It’s hard to miss the point.

Still, there’s a lot to recommend Spencer. It’s a study that works in large part because it maintains the inscrutibility of its subject.

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