Pablo Larrain’s Spencer is haunting, as the past often is, following incessantly, orbiting around you, breathing down your neck. Diana, a figure from the past is irresistible, so resolutely present that you can’t help but follow her into her mindscape. The film does just that, it’s an interpretive representation of a life that might have been. An anti-biopic, that dispenses the rules of a linear narrative to capture the subversion of a Christmas fairytale. The psychological drama set in 1991, closes in on Diana’s idiosyncrasies to isolate her from her surroundings. Larrain premises the film as a “fable from a true tragedy” that shrinks the expansive palatial domesticities into peculiarities of the royals – tormenting and bullying with almost military precision.
The narrative does not dwell, it indulges. It indulges in scones, pastries and crepe soufflé. The delicacies are infinite, much like the walls they are made in, carrying the burden of history. But Diana recoils from such inflexibilities – curtains stitched together, room temperatures a tad too low and fixed costumes for a performance at the dining table – compulsorily weighed down by their need to feed before slaughter – all seem too restrictive. In a sense, Spencer is a reminder of a world that relishes in excess. But the excess is catalogued and regulated – one can’t simply “do” as their hearts dictate but “follow” strictly stipulated rules.
So this is not a world you can saunter into, you have to be invited in. It’s secluded and singular – this world breeds birds only to kill them. This world teaches to kill and aspires to it. This world gifts you luxuries and welcomes you to drown in them. The finest wools and silks are brought to your doorstep, labelled and presented with instructions on when to wear them and someone is always on standby, directing you how to wear them. Larrain’s world-building is shouldered by Kristen Stewart’s Diana. It’s her impression of the world that influences us to empathise with her Diana. But her victimisation is one-fold – the ‘hysterical’ female has time and again taken centre stage when crafted by a man. But Stewart doesn’t shy away from it. She legitimises her hysteria, anchoring the film.
Madness is a patent part of the film as Diana hallucinates the ghost of Anne Boleyn – a figure in history that bears similarities to her present. Reminding the audience, that infidelities committed by husbands, then and now, threaten to punish and taunt only the women. For instance, the pearl necklace, gifted to both Diana and his mistress by Prince Charles, in the end, becomes a symbol of scoff, as it clasps around her neck. But he parades around with his two personas, head held high, mocking her inability to keep up appearances. He testily remarks, “There need to be two of you – the real one and the one they take pictures of.”
But there is only “one” of her. So she’s watched, like prey for a hunt. Teetering in madness, swaying at the edge of reality, befriending ghosts, squirming at supposed conspiracies and gauging delicacies. Yet, nobody talks to her throughout the course of the film. She is predominantly ignored except when the head of the estate, Major Gregory, coaxes Diana to behave. She rarely pays heed to such pointed suggestions – evident when she is late for the Christmas celebration, but is too busy observing her surroundings to care for her tardiness. She is not apologetic for being herself and therein lies her fault.
She breaks rules often and without repentance. Long walks are taken – in the middle of the night, royal pantries are visited to satiate hunger and childhood homes are broken into. Spencers’s Diana seems to be untethered, always on a quest and in many ways, she seems to be chasing the past. Especially when she takes off her father’s jacket from the scarecrow and asks her dresser to mend it. She treads, walks, runs towards the past and if need be, she will trade it for the future. But according to her, “There is no future. The past and the present are the same thing.”
The children are always at the intersections in the film, their existence often obscured by the gloom of tulle ball gowns. Yet when Diana and her children are together, it anticipates miracles – giggles, games and laughter slip through and suddenly, even if doom is near, and the past is written in stone, there is hope – there is a future. But mostly, the scenes with the children are a welcome respite from the claustrophobia that follows Diana’s character.
But it is her encounter with the past, at her childhood home, that enables her to relinquish the present. She tears at her pearled jewels and manages to recall what Spencer was rather than what she has become. The image of her yellow sailor’s suit on the scarecrow embodies everything that Larrain’s Diana stands for. How far do you go for your peace of mind? What do you have to give up? What must you seek? The costumes of a Christmas fairytale are traded in favour of her father’s tattered jacket as she anchors on to a semblance of sanity and hopes for a better future.
The Christmas miracle, that borders on the inexplicable horrors of conformity – accompanies the hunted – legitimising her madness. She is watched, schooled and admonished with every step she takes. So of course, it does not come as a surprise when she goes mad, what other choice was there? Madness seems to be a heritage for the hunted. And yet, she also finds freedom at a KFC joint, under a bit of sky, far from the finer things – close to having a future. The ending is disarmingly different from the premise. Disarmingly pedestrian and wholly uneventful, but a miracle nonetheless.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.