*CW: This film contains depictions of bulimia and self-harm.*
“Poor strangers, they have so much to fear.”
-Shirley Jackson, “We’ve Always Lived in the Castle”
Sandringham Estate, 1991: Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, is late for Christmas. Not that she wants to come; the holidays can be hell, but when your in-laws are royals (and your royal husband is blatantly cheating on you), it’s downright suffocating. As Diana’s family ties loosen and her world crumbles, she realizes her only option is to do the impossible. God protect the princess.
A self-dubbed “fable of a real tragedy,” “Spencer” is its own beast. Kristen Stewart’s tell-all performance is shocking at first glance, but she disappears into the role, delivering a performance that even garnered praise from Diana’s former bodyguard. The film bears its Influence of “Barry Lyndon” on his sleeve (props by cinematographer Claire Mathon!) and much like his 2016 Jackie Kennedy biopic “Jackie”, director Pablo Larraín remains drawn to complex and extremely public women in the midst of personal turmoil; but if “Jackie” covered a consequence, then “Spencer” takes us into the eye of the storm.
There’s something wrong when Jonny Greenwood’s jazz-tinged score flies away. We feel like we’re somewhere we’re not supposed to be, like we’re prying too close. When royal guests enter, they perch on a ladder as if preparing for a ritual. An unintentionally (?) ominous kitchen sign warns: “Keep noise to a minimum, they may hear you.” One can’t help but wonder what a horror movie directed by Larraín would look like; maybe this is his horror movie?
‘Spencer’ sounds more like ‘The Innocents’ than ‘The Crown’; the royal family has never looked more like a lifeless, stilted brood from a gothic horror story. During one particularly tense dinner scene, they seem about to devour Diana whole. Sandringham Estate becomes a rickety old mansion with its own ghost; this iteration of Diana finds herself (figuratively speaking) haunted by Anne Boleyn, notorious second wife of King Henry VIII, whose Diana was his 13th grandniece (through his sister Mary Boleyn). It’s an understandable comparison, the two women were franc and contrary to royal tradition, but it’s such an obvious choice that it feels like it’s straight out of some macabre history-class fanfic.
Perhaps the most haunting specter is that of tradition. In the film, the Royal Family put on a show by weighing everyone before and after dinner to see if they gained weight and therefore enjoyed their meal. Yes it’s an allegedly real royal custom. It seems a chilling and apt metaphor for the flamboyant and aloof nature of the family; why stoop to relatability and just ask everyone if they liked the meal when you can make a grand spectacle out of it to justify your equally grandiose titles?
This ritual seems even more absurd and oppressive when Diana’s struggles with bulimia, which loom large, are taken into account. Her body and her image are not hers, they are “currency”, as the queen tells her. As a princess, she has more than a job to do, she has a role to play. In doing so, she presented herself as collateral for the good of “The Firm”. Her pearls are a slipknot, her dress a cell of silk. A bit melodramatic? For some maybe, but in a post-Meghan-and-Harry-interview world is a chilling condemnation.
“Spencer,” much like its subject, eschews convention to tell the intimate horror of a woman trapped by expectations and an old institution reluctant to change. Although it borders on maudlin territory at times, its bold approach could make it one of the crown jewels of this awards season. If there’s one thing the Oscars love, it’s biopics behind the golden curtain…and “Spencer” pulls down the curtain, for better or worse.
For eating disorders, please call the NEDA Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
For suicide prevention, please call the San Diego Crisis and Access Line: (888) 724-7240
(Dedicated to my grandma, Princess Di superfan and my queen mom.)