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Spencer – movie review

Movie: Spencer | 
Released: November 2021 | 

Rating 3.0 stars

Having recently watched the recorded version of the terrible new musical entitled Diana, we approached this movie with much hesitation. Being neither fans of Princess Diana, nor the British royal family, we had decided to give the TV series The Crown a miss, knowing it would be full of made up facts and situations about a bunch of privileged people and their overpublicised domestic shenanigans.

The pertinent question to be answered is why anyone would deem it worthy or timely to make a movie about the highly polarising celebrity, especially now. It’s been twenty-four years after she died in a tragic car accident following a tormented life as a badly-treated bride of a spoilt prince and soon-to-be King of England? What could possibly be of value to an audience after every possible detail and speculation about that disastrous marriage of hers into the Windsor family which has already been dissected and examined ad nauseam since her passing in 1997? We wondered if perhaps it might offer both her fans and critics some new insight or angle to the whole saga which could satiate their thirst for some yet-to-be revealed truth.

Despite our better judgement we decided to give it a go, based on the movie having been steered by the same Chilean director Pablo Larrain, who previously gave us Jackie another major celebrity biopic about how First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fought through her grief, consoled her children and trauma following her husband’s assassination to define his lasting legacy. The screenplay is by British screenwriter who gave us Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. Early reviews were pretty favourable of lead actress Kirsten Stewart’s performance in this one so we braved our way into it.

The premise

The movie presents a tiny and very specific episode in the troubled life of Diana, then Princess of Wales, as she supposedly spends three days at Sandringham estate in Norfolk over Christmas in 1991 with the royal family. This portrayal of Diana is described as “a fable based on a true story”. So we are warned up front that this telling is purely conjecture, whipped up to explore and suggest her state of mind at a time. It was just over a decade into the failing marriage, as she grappled with mental health issues, including her bulimia and the institution’s expectation that she continue to perform her duty as wife and mother in full awareness of her husband’s continuing adulterous relationship with his mistress.

The setting provides ample room for Diana’s nostalgia with her childhood home of Park House, now vacant and abandoned, conveniently located right beside the Sandringham estate.

Duplicity as norm

There is a key scene in which Diana finally has a private and tense private conversation with Charles (played by Poldark’s Jack Farthing) in which she raises her concern about her sons’ participation in the next day’s peasant shooting. He dismisses her weakness and advises her of the need to develop two separate lives and identities; one for public consumption and the other her own private one. He is clearly annoyed that no one has told her of this principle and her naiveté, despite also having come from the same background of duplicitous royal privilege, is alluded to as a fundamental reason for her inability to accept her fate in what was meant to be a sham marriage. There was no excuse for her to have somehow misconstrued Charles’ marriage proposal as some twisted form of winning the fairy tale lottery of life which a commoner (perhaps like the much-publicly reviled Meghan Markle?) would have otherwise been foolish enough to believe.

There are a few key fictitious characters in this inventive retelling. One of them is Major Alistair Gregory, the newly appointed chief of staff (played by the dour Timothy Spall) whose duties include maintaining the efficiency and security of the royal household, keeping the nosey press out and monitoring Diana’s unpredictable behavioural excursions in order to keep tradition in place as it should be. He too tries to give her mental and dietary counsel with poor results as she continues to be taunted by the stifling formality and oppressive circumstances. One of these taunts comes in the form of having to read a book on Anne Boleyn which someone has deliberately left in her room to guide her sense of duty. This timely resurrection of relevant family history plays on Diana’s already fragile state, leading her to imagine that she too is to be beheaded and dispensed with in order to allow her husband, the future King, to remarry his mistress and preferred consort. How coincidental is the reality that she’s now been knocked off in a car accident of mysterious circumstances, paving the way for the would-be king to now live happily with his real love?

The film has some entertaining fantastically-staged scenes, one of which happens after Diana finds out that Charles’ Christmas gift to her of a pearl necklace is the same one he’s chosen for his mistress Camilla. With that thought getting under her skin, we then live through her bizarre hallucinations which involve the eating of pearls and having to painfully swallow them, as she must her bitter predicament.

Craving love and happiness

And then there is the made up character of her faithful and sympathetic dresser Maggie, played with much pathos by Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), who appears to be her only friend and confidant. Maggie gets sent away, then returns on request by Diana as a compromise to help get her act together. There is a heart-warming scene in which Maggie offers to provide Diana with the friendship and love she craves, having missed this as a child and most definitely hadn’t found in motherhood or her fake marriage, on top of her demanding public duties.

The whole brief Christmas episode ends on a high for Diana when she disrupts the traditional festivities with what seems like an act of deranged defiance. Charles appears to give in and she manages to extricate herself and her sons from the stifling grip of the extended royal family. Finally, she can save her boys from themselves and she gets to spend some independent and quality time with them, casting aside all stuffy protocols that seem to bog them down as true human beings. It feels like a moment of triumph for her, suggesting that she may have gotten her way this time and finally able to enjoy a brief flash of true happiness in an otherwise dreadful life of excess and falseness. If only this were true.

Good execution, questionable motives

Kirsten Stewart does a more-than-respectable job playing Diana, putting on a posh English accent to capture her torment and sense of being trapped under stifling and lonely conditions she never bargained for when she married Charles. Her resemblance to “the People’s Princess” is aided by a gauntness that makes her issues with keeping her food down most believable.

From a film-making perspective, the movie is passable. Director Pablo Larrain has successfully created a world and atmosphere of intense scrutiny, foreboding and oppression in which we can readily imagine and empathise with the distress and despair Diana would have felt 10 years into her terrible marriage. This is all effectively transmitted through great cinematography by Claire Mahon, aided by an evocative soundtrack by John Greenwood (Phantom Thread, There will be Blood, The Handmaid’s Tale).

Answering the question

So back to the initial question. Was this movie worth making and watching? As with the other controversial movie Nitram, about the tragic 1996 Port Arthur massacre which saw 35 people killed and 23 others wounded, my personal view is that unless the movie is going to shed some new light on the real event(s)—in order to provide some sensitive understanding about the perpetrator of the unspeakable crime or the suffering of those impacted by the events—then why bother? Worse still, if you’re going to make things up in pure speculation or even alter the facts for artistic and story-telling exigency then all the more offensive is the endeavour.

Surely, the motivation to provide false fodder for hungry proponents on either side of the loyalty fence, or some artistic or creative award for the actors, director or writer must seem like a shameful indulgence at the expense of a truth-telling ideal. If it’s mere entertainment that’s the preferred outcome then a fictional modern day Game of Thrones without reference to real people might have been the more ethical way to go.