A Fable From a True tragedy: Spencer

Image courtesy of Film Daily

By Noelia Veras

“A fable from a true tragedy.” Pablo Larraín’s film Spencer opens up with these words before it unfolds and tells the fictional recounting of a Christmas weekend where Princess Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, visits the royal family. The film is not necessarily a literal recounting of the life of Princess Diana, but instead it offers a glimpse into her psyche. Rather than concentrate on telling a biopic with a large scope and detailed accuracy, the film is more of a mood piece that aims to have audiences not only empathize with the late Princess Diana, but also to  understand her.

The film takes place 10 years into Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. At this point, they already have their two children, and Diana is under the impression that her husband is having an affair. This film captures a moment in time that is diagnostic of the future, or, rather, the moment that serves as a precursor to when things begin to collapse in Diana’s personal life. 

The film has elements of magical realism, elements which serve to mark a sense of instability and highlight the main character’s mental disequilibrium. 

Spencer takes place in the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, which is marked by its opulence and grandeur. The staff at the estate is large and vigilantly watches over Princess Diana; Major Alistair Gregory, a member meant to stand watch of the estate, is a staff member that most pointedly monitors her. The story is meant to establish this hyper-vigilance of Diana; in fact, it opens up with her on her way to the estate, driving alone and lost in an effort to escape scrutiny. In other words, she drives to the estate alone on impulse in an effort to escape the ever-present eye of the royal family. In this way, the film establishes a tension between Diana and the crown immediately, one concerned with privacy, vigilance, and a desire for freedom.

As the film progresses, there are portrayals of more tension between Diana and the royal family, but there are also moments of extreme vulnerability of Diana alone and tormented by her own mind and her inescapable situation. 

Diana’s companion and, who seems to be her only adult ally, is the Estate’s Royal Dresser Maggie. Diana seems to find solace in her moments with Maggie, who a lot of the time encourages her to continue forward and challenge the royal family by excelling in her obligations as Prince Charles’s wife. She also finds comfort in being around her sons.

The most emotionally moving moments of the film actually involve Princess Diana with her children. There is a certain emphasis on the role of parenting and nurturing of children throughout the film. Diana makes it clear that she used to live in the neighboring estate growing up which is now run-down and boarded up. She emphasizes her memories there with her family, but most of her tender feelings regarding the past are towards her father. In an early scene we see Princess Diana take a coat off of a scarecrow. The coat allegedly belonged to her father and she carries it with her throughout the story.

The film at its most tender is a love story between Princess Diana to her children and father, but at its most intense it is a retelling of a trauma-filled existence in one of the most high-profile families in the world. In these moments of intensity and internal decay, our main character is unreliable and insufferable. 

Stewart’s ability to relay Princess Diana’s lovability in the face of her most difficult period in time is masterful. Little is said at some points in the film, but the body language and facial expressions that Stewart employs say it all, and they are able to convey extreme hardship, mental strife, and pain. Stewart’s performance is precise and mirrors Princess Diana down to her tone of voice and unique inflection.
Spencer is an arthouse film, evidently, and it does not concern itself with facts but with spirit and substance. Critics are already predicting that Stewart will probably be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards and countless people have been moved by the sheer relatability of the film that predominantly seeks to humanize Princess Diana. Spencer parses tension between the gentle and the rough to channel the emotional reality of a beloved figure in history that lives on in the emotional memory of history.

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