More than 23 years after her death, Princess Diana is once again ubiquitous in pop culture.
Last year, we got Diana’s highly anticipated season in The Crown, which hit an Emmy in September; the unlikely hit musical Diana on Broadway (and Netflix); new controversy over Diana’s frank conversation with Martin Bashir in 1995; Oprah Winfrey’s equally stunning interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, which seemed like history was repeating itself.
We now have Spencer, a biopic (of sorts) about former Lady Diana Spencer as she unravels during a particularly sad Christmas holiday at Sandringham, Queen’s Norfolk estate, in 1991. Directed by Pablo Larrain. who, with his film Jackie, showed that he has a talent for shedding new light on single but incredibly privileged women who have been widely mythologized.
And, well, of course is an the new version of Diana is one in which the monarchists in the UK are already squeezing pearls (if they don’t spit them out into the soup).
Maybe ruffling so many feathers is good? And why do people care so much about Diana’s image decades after her death? The Times contributors and unofficial royal correspondents Meredith Blake and Mary McNamara speak below.
MB: Welcome back, Mary. The last time we had one of those conversations, we talked about a very English actress playing a typically American character. We now have an American actress portraying the greatest English woman: Kristen Stewart as the late Princess Diana.
I confess I came to “Spencer” as a skeptic: I wasn’t sure if the laid-back Stewart, the self-proclaimed bastard from Los Angeles best known for playing a teen horny for a vampire, could act like the earl’s daughter out of high school. Swiss boarding school. I was also concerned about reports that the ghost of Anne Boleyn appeared in the film.
And more than anything else, I wondered if there was more to be said about Diana, who was already one of the most comprehensive chronicles of the 20th century, even before this final battle with Dianamania. With her crying loudly, the last season of The Crown ended with Diana spending a terrible Christmas vacation in Sandringham and Stewart using the same dialect as Emma Corrin.
But I’m happy to say I was wrong. “Spencer” is a surreal, psychologically insightful portrait that offers remarkable insight into Diana’s many contradictions – “a fable of true tragedy,” according to the opening title page, not a full-length Wikipedia entry. Stewart carries it all on his shoulders and plays Diana with surprisingly dry humor – I laughed out loud when she told her dresser to leave her alone so she could masturbate.
Larraine adheres to some of the more ludicrous customs of the royal family, such as the military transport that brings all of their food to the estate, or the supposedly “fun” tradition of weighing all family members to make sure they work their best during the holiday. , an obvious trigger for bulimic Diana, but never gets bogged down in tedious writing.
There are no doubt more historically accurate depictions of Diana and the Windsor clan, but none of them reflect the stifling privilege and constant observation that the princess was subjected to at the height of her glory.
Mary, what did you expect from the movie? And what did you think of it in the end?
Can you also talk about outfits?
MM: Only after we talk about bulimia. In Spencer, as in the Apple TV + series Physical, self-induced vomiting is given a lot of screen time, and in both cases I was impressed by the way it is portrayed: not as some kind of weird diet. but as a fear-generated compulsion and an attempt to take control. There has been some criticism of Larrain’s decision to portray Diana vomiting as often and graphically as in the film, but for me it substantiated all aspects of the gothic horror in the film in fact.
Spencer is by far one of the best examples of an anti-holiday movie I’ve ever seen. This is completely typical of the Windsors, recreated here as non-festive, even robotic. Except for the hissing critic Charles (Jack Farthing) of his wife, few adults talk to each other; the dinner scenes are like something from Madame Tussauds. But there is also a merciful universality in this; Diana is not the only person who is afraid of the holidays with their obligatory rituals and the forced gathering of people who clearly do not like to be together.
I say “merciful” because, like you, I am more fascinated by Diana than Diana herself. I came of age in the early days of the royal couple, old enough to remember that the press was crazy about Shai Di, and young enough to envy the entire princess in a fairy tale storyline at the time. And that, I suppose, continues to fuel the admiration. Diana’s story, for better or worse, is the ultimate proof that glamor is not the same as happiness; in fact, it is the art of hypocrisy.
I’m not sure how often we need Diana to illustrate that the image is not real, but apparently at least twice. (The next season of Crown will continue Diana’s increasingly tragic journey.) Stewart’s acting is obviously a reason to watch Spencer, and I think we would all be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that role. This interest stems from Stewart’s own problems like Diana. Early fame, media-documented romance with Robert Pattinson, fluctuations in public opinion – even outside of her art, Stewart was, and sometimes even herself, put herself in the limelight. Including engagement announcement one week prior to movie release.
But what I liked the most about Stewart’s acting was her refusal to consecrate Diana. Her princess is as grumpy and stubborn as she is rejected and mistreated. Aside from the wonderful relationship with her sons, she seems unwilling to live within the particular reality she has chosen – an arranged marriage with a future monarch – and more universal – it turns out that her husband is in love with someone else. And even for the sake of her sons, she is unable to do what many have done – to grit her teeth and get through Christmas with her terrible relatives as best she can, so that the children can enjoy it.
MB: Mary, you made me completely rethink Spencer. Here I thought it was Rosemary’s Baby meeting Downton Abbey, but in reality it is just a (more) nightmarish version of Family Stone.
“Spencer” is not a hagiography, but I think that in the end he is quite sympathetic to Diana. There is a (completely unverifiable) theory that celebrities are emotionally stuck at the age at which they became famous, and Spencer’s Diana is clearly short – a lonely little girl who spent ten years in an atmosphere of violent nannies and pervasive research. … Hence her desire to return to the home in which she grew up, the way she asks the children to regulate her behavior (“Mom, you are acting stupid now”), and her compulsion to trust the staff.
I think Larrain’s portrayal of Diana’s eating disorder is well within acceptable limits (in fact, I found Corona more distasteful in that regard; remember the montage where Diana overeats and purifies herself, interspersed with Maori dance? Oops.) what the movie does. a good piece of work, capturing how Diana was completely isolated, but was never alone – she was constantly monitored by the media, her husband’s family and their henchmen.
This is a 30-year-old woman who can barely drive anywhere, pick up clothes, or raise her temperature without provoking a constitutional crisis. The labels on the dresses chosen for her read “POW,” presumably for the Princes of Wales, but a different meaning certainly applies. There is even a sign in the kitchen where Diana likes to run away and reads: “Minimize noise. They can hear you.
You can understand why she needs to feel in control of something – anything – in such a threatening environment. (“Spencer” is not exaggerating when it comes to this aspect of Diana’s life: the events in the film take place after Diana had already begun secretly sharing her story with biographer Andrew Morton and months before the infamous Squidgate conversations – recorded while she spoke on the phone at Sandringham – made public.)
I can definitely see parallels between Diana and Stewart, who knows a thing or two about being on the other end of the telephoto lens. And Stewart, like Diana, has a shy effect that the camera loves. But most of all for me, this version of Diana reminded me of another blonde who rose to fame as a teenager, struggled with her mental health and became a kind of prisoner of her own celebrity: Britney Spears. Diana set a new standard for female fame in many ways, and we still think what that means four decades after her engagement to Charles.
I appreciated all the subtle omens in Spencer – the mention of mines, lack of safety equipment, and reckless driving – all added to the film’s ghostly feel. Spencer ends without a postscript because we don’t need to know how the story ends.
Mary, what do you think of Spencer’s bouts of magical realism – in particular, the ghosts of Anne Boleyn?
MM: Ohh, I didn’t pay attention to what was a POW, although I really liked how the clothes that so many people admired and envied her were presented as another aspect of her “captivity.” (I don’t know what to say about the yellow cocked hat or what you call the hat that was used in the advertising pictures and became something of a plot. I know that Diana loved yellow, but for Christmas?)
Spencer is definitely presented as a Christmas ghost story, albeit more Edith Wharton than Charles Dickens, with Timothy Spall lurking in the air creating a certain Mrs Danvers atmosphere. So when Anne Boleyn slips inside or Diana sneaks through her creepy former home (with the obligatory dusty rocking horse – why is there always a dusty rocking horse?), It made sense. And although Sandringham, even in Larrain’s dark interpretation, is not the Tower of London, Boleyn conjures up the specter of free will. Diana’s adolescence while courting Charles really casts doubt on the notion that I actually just mentioned that she knew what she was getting herself into when she married Charles. Anna, too, is often portrayed as having much more choice and control than she probably had.
For me, the real tragedy of Spencer was the poor use of Sally Hawkins. Every time her Maggie appeared on the screen, I thought, “Well, she is much more interesting than this stunted princess” … and this is without a doubt why she is not so often on the screen.
I have to admit that despite my general sympathy for Diana, I spent most of the film wanting to shake her up. It was too cold that made me laugh – for years my dad kept the thermostat at 63 even at Christmas – and while I realize that this acts as a metaphor for a cool atmosphere, like a mother, I just thought, “Baby, if you knew it would be cold, you should have brought the children warmer clothes. ”
And honestly, who in their right mind keeps the Queen of England waiting? Especially when she’s your mother-in-law. But I suppose the point is that at that moment Diana was not quite sane.
MB: Really. And this also explains her love for Les Miz.