The cult of Diana Spencer returns to the silver screen, and suffering ensues

David G. Hughes on Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021, UK-US).

There’s something altogether false and unpleasant about Spencer, the new film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín. The plot concerns a rough Christmas spent at Sandringham, told through the eyes of the ostracised, titular royal. But unpleasantries and falsehoods are, one supposes, the point of the film; it’s about the vomiting before the regal get-together, the opulence and festivity that conceals spiritual morbidity, and other well-trodden paradoxes. This is a film that, like any good film, wants us to look. But that celebrity is not all that it seems is surely, by now, a given, and what it’s looking at has the suspicious air of voyeuristic fascination; Spencer loves Diana’s victimhood while it lazily excoriates the institution it belives to be responsible for her suffering.

In the most recent series of the Netflix series, The Crown, Diana (Emma Corin) is depicted closer to what she most likely was: at best sweet and naive, at worst: a spoiled social climber. The Crown at least had some sympathy for Charles, who, it suggests, never wanted to marry the girl who charmed her way into the The Firm through good graces and suitable genes. That Larrain’s film tries to fashion Diana as a class outsider is laughable, and it mistakes personal airheadedness for middle-class triviality. Kristen Stewart’s shining, fiery intelligence does Mrs Spencer more favours than she probably deserves.

The Netflix show was interesting for the simple fact that it didn’t take sides, that the Diana-Charles fiasco was another case of the series’ perennial, irreconcilable theme: tradition versus modernity, the individual versus the collective. It’s a shame that for all of its cinematic glory — wonderful costumes, crisp cinematography, and a bona fide movie star at the helm — Spencer has less sophistication than its TV counterpart, reliant on cod-psychology, heavy-handed symbolism (wild horses, suffocating necklaces, the only thing missing is a bird in a cage), conjecture, caricature, and religious infatuation with a martyr. Worst of all, it tips its hat to conspiracy theories.

Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021, UK-US). Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart).

The message? Consumer capitalism offers liberation from repressive tradition. In this way, the film feels like it was made at the time it was set, in all of the that era’s arrogance and neoliberal fervour. Maybe Diana did find refuge in Mike & the Mechanics and KFC bargain buckets, as depicted. She certainly represents the transition from an ethics of collective self-sacrifice to consumer individualism. But this goes unexamined by Larraín, to whom Diana is simply a secular Joan of Arc; he’s too enamoured by her moral suffering to ever consider the socio-historical context that gave rise to the Diana phenomena, or the virtues and ethics that motivate the controversial institute of which Diana was a voluntary member, the representatives of which are depicted as inhuman statues. Larraín has seemingly drunk the kool aid when it comes to the Princess, that she is merely an innocent victim of a tyrannical institution, that tradition is nothing but unwanted peer pressure from the dead. That someone — an artist — could come to the same unimaginative conclusion as a 90s tabloid, make an expensive movie about it, and be as unnuanced in his expression of it, does no favors to his credibility as an artist. 

The film does get right the crisp beauty of the winter English countryside. Visible breath, misty pastures, rosy cheeks. It’s enough to make one patriotic, ironically (made more ironic by the fact it was shot in Germany). Technically, Spencer is an outstanding movie, and quite beautiful. Like the opening montage, as the staff prepare for royal service with miliatry precision, the production team turns up. Stewart most of all. It’s highly likely that Stewart will win the oscar. The performance is deserving, but there’s an ideological reason, too: Spencer is a film about MENTAL HEALTH (the film insinuates Diana suffered from schizophrenia as well as the well-documented bulimia), a problem which conveninetly crosses class barriers (see Harry and Meghan’s commericalisation of “wellness”), and fits the current cultural fascination with victimhood. Culturally, it’s à la mode. But it’s an examination of psychological turmoil at its most superficial, ignorant, and poorly-scripted.

It’s easy to cheer the assertion of autonomy that is the film’s chief moral. But it’s too easy, and relies on certain ideological assumptions. And for that reason the movie is cheap, cashing in on maudlin, binary, and oftentimes outright ridiculous sentiments about a member of a ruling dynasty whose banal death the culture is still desperately, tragically, trying to salvage meaning from. In this instance, it’s a fervant belief in, and love of, moral masochism. — David G. Hughes


Director Pablo Larraín

Writer Steven Knight

Cinematographer Claire Mathon

Editor Sebastián Sepúlveda

Cast Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins

Duration 111 minutes

David G. Hughes

David was born in Cheshire, Northern England, and currently resides in Clerkenwell, London. He is a graduate of Film Studies from King’s College London and Film Aesthetics from The University of Oxford. His writing has appeared in Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, Quillette, Film International, Spiked, Little White Lies, photogénie, and more.

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