Spencer Is An Enchanting Fairytale About Diana And Her Demons, Film Companion

Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Stella Gonet
Cinematographer: Claire Mathon

Spencer opens with the words, “a fable from a true tragedy”. Though it implies the same, the slate doesn’t have the ring of a “work of fiction based on real events” disclaimer. Because this is not a disclaimer. It is a viewer manual, a reminder to watch this film through a pointed aesthetic prism. A fable is often known as a story that uses animals as characters to arrive at a moral truth. Director Pablo Larrain crafts Spencer as just that: a live-action fairytale where nobody, including its famous protagonist, is allowed to be human. What was once a sinister metaphor for the life of Princess Diana is now, in Larrain’s hands, a deep-set visual tone. The British royal family – whom Netflix’s The Crown have spent years humanizing – is presented as a wealthy herd whose faces are so frozen that they may as well be animal-head masks. (The “clients” of Squid Game come to mind). The setting is a castle shrouded by mist. The staff move with the regimented efficiency of ant colonies. Their chief, an ex-army major, eyes Diana like a creepy hawk. In fact, if I look back at Spencer some day, I might likely remember it as a brooding Wes Anderson title. The one where the wounded bird reaches the brink of insanity during a party with the jackals.

Spencer imagines a Christmas weekend in 1991, where Diana – whose marriage to Charles is all but finished – reluctantly joins the Royal family at their Norfolk holiday estate. Over the weekend, Diana struggles with their mute hostility, her depression, her heartbreak, her eating disorder, her childhood memories, and most of all, her bitter resentment for the Crown that’s beheaded her dreams. She doesn’t speak so much as think aloud, pouring out her paranoia to anyone in her caged vicinity. The film plays out like both a fever dream and a revisionist drama, providing history with a tangible moment of transition. A decision that’s usually relegated to newspaper headlines is inflated into a self-sustaining psychological drama. As a result, this is a rare film that hinges on the bias of hindsight rather than pretending to circumvent it. It unfurls with an eye on the future, counting on the fact that time has both informed and diluted our understanding of the Diana legacy.

A large chunk of the two-hour film depicts Diana as the tortured myth that pop culture has come to fetishize. She hallucinates, stumbles, weeps and mumbles, making Spencer an excessive portrait of a lady on fire. It’s easy to experience but hard to access, a conflict exclusive to Pablo Larrain’s filmography. (Jackie, on the other hand, was easy to access but difficult to experience). But the final 20 minutes of Spencer reveal Diana in the light of who she actually might have been. The narrative of her womanhood – as princess, wife, lover, sister and daughter – was often recorded to override her identity as a mother. Here, the two finally collide to create a conventional but fair resolution. Larrain’s control lifts it beyond the realms of wishful thinking; none of it may have happened, but all of it may have existed. Enabling this duality is Jonny Greenwood’s score – a haunting lullaby if heard without context, but a surreal anthem of awakening within the film. It’s almost as though the lullaby is for Diana’s two sons, who’re too young to let context diminish their love for a sibling-like mother. And the anthem – using instruments of tragedy like the violin and piano, and at one point, even the jazzy trumpet – is for Diana, trapped in the dying stages of a nightmare before opening her eyes. The sound shifts shape in a way that were serenading Diana’s sorrow and deriding the Crown’s silence at once.

As with most fables, Spencer teases in the language of symbolism and foreboding. The opening frame features a dead bird on the road leading to the estate. The royal motorcade passes over the bird in a manner that evokes Diana’s precarious fate; the wheels come within a feather of crushing the lifeless body, the passing of each car making us wince with fresh terror. Diana’s first exchange, when she’s lost in the countryside, features a loaded line: “I’m looking for somewhere, but there are no signs”. Even an argument at a billiards table features a ball formation – two solitary balls facing an army of others – that’s emblematic of Diana’s inability to be two different people for the country. Perhaps the most unsettling of them all is a moment where Diana casually asks an onlooker, “Will they kill me, do you think?”; she lets the heaviness hang for a hot second, before it’s revealed that she’s referring to a scarecrow she wants to disrobe in the middle of a field.

Also Read: The Crown On Netflix: The Best Scenes So Far 

The scarecrow is a running trope in the film. There’s more to it than the human-mannequin analogy. Diana finds herself to be synonymous with a pheasant – a pretty but dull bird better known as targets of shooting practice – and so the act of her walking towards a scarecrow becomes strangely poignant. In a way, the film depicts a cynical phase where she is repulsed by her fear of confrontation; her relationship with the scarecrow, a bird’s enemy and an optic illusion, signifies a slow mushrooming of defiance. This is further evidenced by how Diana gifts her sons miniature Lobster and Crab soft toys for Christmas. That Diana and her kids are associated with the three is no coincidence. Lobsters, crabs and birds are culinary favourites, plucked out of oceans and skies to be cooked and eaten by carnivorous humans on the ground. It’s a disarming touch in a film ripe with abstract angst.

Come awards season, Kristen Stewart’s titular performance might be one of the year’s frontrunners. Given the juries’ traditional disposition towards the British monarchy universe (BMU), this may not mean much. But it’s necessary validation for a film and lead turn that combine to challenge the Oscar-baity nature of the genre. The casting of Stewart – an American actress who has reinvented herself with every subsequent role since her breakout with Twilight – raised a few eyebrows when Spencer was announced. But the concern was always unfounded. For one, there’s nobody better at twitchy, internal-turmoil sketches. Stewart’s instinctive ability to read the relationship between camera and performer is second to none. She at once consumes and occupies a space, which in turn brings to life unfilmable emotions without the crutch of flashbacks. She nails Diana’s gait and accent, sure, but that’s barely the point. Stewart handles the added responsibility of making Diana escape the cage – and the story – she’s in. At some level, she is almost working against the film-making, the consequence of which is an enchanting marriage of rebel and cause.

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The soul of Kristen Stewart’s role is also rooted in the spiritual harmony between actor and character. The Stewart today is a descendent – and organic extension – of the brutally scrutinized star whose own fairytale romance had once collapsed in full view of the world. The way she was hounded became the showbiz equivalent of the Princess Diana syndrome. She’s come a long way even though she didn’t have to. Watching her pull on a past to redefine the sanctity of a future is, for better or worse, like watching Diana Spencer survive her fate and not succumbing to it. If you look closely, you might spot a bit of Stewart in Diana, not just the other way around. And if that isn’t the spirit of Spencer, I’m not sure what is. The film is a significant work of mythbuilding: it corrects an anomaly in time while preserving its repercussions.

Perhaps the recent resurgence of Diana on screen – first in The Crown, now Spencer – is no surprise. She rallied against an archaic institution and never stopped paying the price for it. In an age when autocratic governments are threatening to curtail the freedom of living all over the globe, a figure like Diana epitomizes the anti-establishment struggle in its most primal form. After all, what is democracy if not a fable from a true tragedy?

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