Spencer: The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful Diana Princess of Wales
By Elyse Ashton
The controversy about the film Spencer is raging before it even opens on November 5th.. I was invited to attend a screening last night in Hollywood followed by a q&a session with star Kristen Stewart. I didn’t know what to expect, but this wasn’t it. We were warned before the screening “This is NOT a bio-pic” so I tightened my KN95 and prepared for a wild ride.
And, dear reader, it was. I am still processing what I saw. It is thought provoking, emotional, both delicately soaring and uncomfortably confining, containing some truth, fact based fantasy and outright invention. The film itself begins with the disclaimer that it is a fable drawn from a “true tragedy” which plays out as three surreal days in the imaginary life of Diana during a Christmas visit to Sandringham. It begins with scores of vehicles laden with provisions for the royal celebration making their way over a dead pheasant in the road. We also meet Diana, getting lost on her solitary drive. The royal chef recognizes her on the side of the road and helps her discover exactly where she is, which is very near her childhood home. Immediate metaphors! Massive symbolism! Let’s dish!
The acting was superb. There has been a lot of apprehension about the casting of Kristen Stewart but she pulled off the role of Diana well beyond my expectations. She revealed to the audience during question time that she had six months to work and prepare for her role, and it shows. She acknowledged she isn’t a ringer for Diana physically, but trained with William Conacher (who also coached actors Naomi Watts and Emma Corrin), to take on Diana’s voice and mannerisms to the point where they look unstudied. Kristen Stewart carries this film and makes it her tour de force. She and director Pablo Larrain bring the audience on an intense surreal psychological journey though isolation and mental illness reminiscent of 1960’s films like “Repulsion”.
Stewart is surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast. Jack Farthing is underused but strong in his subtle portrayal of Prince Charles. Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry are perfect as young William and Harry. They radiate love, bring moments of fun, and embody the pain felt by children in the midst of dysfunction. Stella Gonet portrays a distant, unflappable Queen. Timothy Spall is equerry Major Alistair Gregory, an enigmatic figure who is creepily omnipresent. He cares, but not about Diana. Sally Hawkins plays Maggie, Diana’s favorite dresser and confidante. She has a big sympathetic heart and a secret which is no surprise. Sean Harris is Royal Chef Darren who has a pivotal role as a sort of guide with a deep understanding of the machine he works within, a solid knowledge of the rules, the caveats and guidance on how to survive. A sign in his kitchen warns ominously “They Can Hear You”. Diana has the hardest struggles and yet the most understanding from those below stairs characters, where real life occurs and the wheels are kept turning to facilitate the upstairs façade and their often cruel “bits of fun”. The elder members of the royal family are directed to rarely break form or show emotion. Most have no lines at all.
Spencer is a beautifully made film. It’s lovely to look at most of the time. The settings and costumes are transcendent and create an unattainable mythic royal world. The magnificent score perfectly illustrates and underscores the anxiety and emotion yet also calls attention to itself.
There are several difficult scenes focusing on Diana’s bulimia, her struggle and inability to force herself to do, as Prince Charles says, “things you hate” and a gruesome moment of self harm. For much of the film, Diana is not likable or sympathetic as depicted because of her entitled self absorption and disregard for everyone but her children. There were moments when Diana is outright bratty and rude, dropping a few f-bombs and a coolly delivering a cringe worthy impropriety that sends a newly assigned dresser hurrying out of the room. She can be petulant and frustrating. She robs a scarecrow and talks to a coat, steals out into the dead of night armed with wire cutters and torch, which seem way out of character and pulls you out of the film to wonder why. I understood that it was to illustrate the themes of emptiness and the struggle of going home which runs through the film, but it can be jarring.
Spencer is strange and surreal. Reality ebbs and flows atmospherically. How many films can boast the wise ghost of Anne Bolyen as Deus ex Machina? Who is really going to eat pearls in soup? Suddenly, we have a dance montage. Just go with it. Moments of joy are hard earned. The audience will recognize that Spencer, was made by writer Steven Wright, director Pablo Larrain, and it’s star, Kristen Stewart from a place of real admiration for Diana. But it also takes disturbing liberties of speculation and projection. It is provocative and masterfully plotted out. It is not at all a forgettable film.
As the audience has been warned, this is a fable, and we really don’t know what is going to happen. I wondered if the royal family was actually going to kill Diana during the course of this imaginary Christmas. So, one could safely venture to say that the film is not entirely respectful. Any speculation is also troubling because Diana’s history is recent, and her family are still dealing with the aftermath. These are real people depicted, and for all the disclaimers, some viewers are still going to believe it’s what truly happened. Intentional or not, this will cause pain.
The ending, without spoilers, presents us with a “what if” that was unexpectedly emotional. After the film, a lady in the audience asked if there was going to be a part two, which to me… misses the whole point. We interpreted it very differently.
I’m neither going to encourage or discourage you to see Spencer. It’s not an easy watch. A few audience members left before the end. Others stood and applauded. The suffering and anxiety are palpable. Kristen Stewart understood that you don’t ask the audience what they thought directly after viewing. She said she wouldn’t ask because, “You just saw it”. I am still thinking about certain scenes, working out symbols and discovering meanings. So go see Spencer if you’re intrigued, or give it a miss if you find the whole idea maddening. I’ll understand either way. One thing I do know is that you’ll have an opinion!
Elyse Ashton, the author, is an actress and Los Angeles Press Club Award winning co-host of The Anglophile Channel’s Dish shows. She gives her opinions very decidedly for not so young a person.