It’s embarrassing to admit that I found Spencer to be a total hoot. With my snarling hatred of the British monarchy, I expected to find this tale of poor, poor Princess Diana insufferable. But then Spencer turned out to be a bonkers, off-the-chain Gothic melodrama, and my love of the genre won out over my desire to watch all the members of the House of Windsor fall into the River Thames.
That just shows you the dangerous allure of genre films. They can cause you to forget the principles of a lifetime.
Spencer starts with an incoherent opening title card reading, “A fable from a true tragedy,” which hints at the raving madness to come. If you’re not into the emotional moon shots that Gothic melodrama takes, steer clear! Compared to the wild excesses of Spencer, sensational old thrillers like Rebecca (1940) and Gaslight (1944) are measured, realistic examinations of marital troubles any couple might have.
Props to screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) and Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Jackie, No) for this surreal potboiler about Diana, Princess of Wales, coming unglued over a three-day Christmas holiday stay at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth’s obscenely massive country estate in Norfolk. The film starts by establishing the vast, lunatic scale of life among the royals. Military vehicles in a seemingly endless procession truck in the supplies necessary for every possible indulgence. Soldiers march in toting in what look to be huge weapons cases but are actually tubs of lobsters and game hens and all the other luxurious viands these monsters feed upon in multiple feasts per day. Soldiers and uniformed servants, marching in identical formation, pass each other like the changing of the guard.
And it’s all shot in icy blue light to foretell both the literal temperature of the interior of the estate house, where the heat is never turned up no matter how Diana and her young sons complain that they’re freezing, and the chilly relationships of the royal family members. Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet) has the pale-eyed, cold-blooded gaze of a lizard contemplating various insects she might decide to consume next. This is apt, considering Diana’s description of herself as an insect under the microscope, getting studied while its wings and legs are ripped off one by one.
She also compares herself to a pheasant, “beautiful but stupid,” and we see what happens to pheasants around the royal family. They’re bred to be victims of the royals’ ritual hunts during these excruciating holiday sojourns in the country, and those that escape that fate inevitably become roadkill. One of the first images in the film is a close-up of a dead pheasant in the road, with the military trucks passing over it repeatedly, each time getting closer to squashing it flat. Oh, it’s a delightfully unsubtle film!
In the frigid, stately opening sequence, the developing crisis is that, while all the other members of the royal family arrive at Sandringham as scheduled, along with their usual security details, according to strict protocol, Diana is driving there alone in her sports car, and she’s late. Diana is lost in the countryside. Her first line is, “Where the fuck am I?”
This leads her to stop and ask for directions at a combination fish-and-chips shop and gas station, which naturally paralyzes everyone in the place, since they never expected to have a world-famous princess in their midst, standing awkwardly on one spindly bird leg, saying plaintively, “I don’t know where I am.”
And as will soon be revealed, it’s odd that she doesn’t know where she is, considering that she was raised in Park House, a large residence once occupied by her father John Spencer — Eighth Earl Spencer, don’t you know — and his noble family, which is now an abandoned building on the grounds of Sandringham Estate. She’s actually home. Except, as Diana laments, “everything’s changed.”
It doesn’t make sense — that is, unless you’re into Gothic melodrama, and then it makes complete sense. According to Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” we feel a shiver of occult dread when our experience of the safe, familiar, and “homely” is collapsed together with the unsafe, strange, and “unhomely” (“heimlich”/”unheimlich”). Diana gets a double dose of scary “homecoming/un-homecoming” by staying in her husband’s alienating and entrapping family estate house abutting her father’s dark, abandoned domicile.
It’s all hysterically ominous. Fearing the consequences of such an enormous breach of royal protocol as being late, Diana nervously asks her friend, the royal chef Darren McGrady, “Will they kill me, do you think?”
Many Gothic melodramas feature a young woman, often newly married, brought to an oppressive aristocratic mansion where she is menaced by an indistinct variety of forces that might include:
- a cold, removed, harshly judgmental husband seemingly plotting against her, perhaps to the extent of driving her insane or killing her;
- a hostile household of in-laws and/or servants who judge her by onerous rules she cannot understand or live up to;
- the weight of a dark past represented by sinister old books and ancestral portraits;
- the labyrinthian house itself as a malignant force full of dangerous secrets;
- and/or the possibility that her own precarious psychological state is causing her to imagine all of the above in an increasingly paranoid downward spiral.
In Spencer, though Diana has been married over ten years by the time she’s driven to the brink, she’s haunted by all these diffuse dangers. Gothic-wise, it’s the whole shebang.
As Diana, Kristen Stewart has a fair shot at all the awards they’ll be giving out this spring, because she brings dizzying conviction to every Diana-ism. There’s the head ducked to one side and the sad eyes cast upward in a maddening display of shyness. There’s the soft upper-class speech coming out in rushed bursts, the headlong stride on long thin legs, usually balancing precariously on fashionable high heels. And Stewart can also provide the impossibly narrow, elongated body — maintained by bulimia in Diana’s case — that is ideal for her role as a much-photographed clotheshorse changing her outfit ten times a day. All that’s needed to complete the illusion is pale pink lipstick and that signature 1980s blonde hairdo of Diana’s, short and side-parted and feathered back.
Of course, the real Diana was no lamb led to the slaughter, perpetually meek and mild, as she’s portrayed here — certainly not by the time she found out about Charles’s long-standing affair with Camilla Parker Bowles and began to rebel against the constraints of life as a royal. A much tougher Diana was revealed when she was secretly taped raging about the horrible Sandringham Christmas to her friend and maybe lover James Gilbey, shouting, “After all I’ve done for this bloody family!” She gave as good as she got in playing the press against the other royals once open hostilities began. But for the purposes of Gothic melodrama, she’s got to be the totally victimized innocent we root for.
The film’s cinematographer, Claire Mathon, who shot the even more gorgeous French melodrama Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), does opulently beautiful and atmospheric work conveying Diana’s overwrought state as she grapples with the disintegration of her hopeless marriage to the cold-fish Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). When she finally arrives at the estate, wearing a bold green-pink-and-black plaid jacket, only she is in vivid color, to the point that the weave of her jacket becomes hypervisible, while everyone around her is misty and muted — an excellent way to convey her self-conscious misery and dread that will hardly allow her to register her surroundings.
And the score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead goes completely, distractingly nuts in this film. Chamber quartets hit shrieking notes and jazz trumpets flip out in a mad cacophony at the climactic points of Diana’s hallucinatory distress, which include the recurring spirit or vision of doomed sixteenth-century Tudor queen Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), a distant relative of the Spencers, haunting the halls and crying, “Run, Diana, run!”
I was laughing and hugging myself with glee through a lot of this, but other audience members watched very solemnly, and one fell asleep and snored gently throughout. So, as always, your experience may vary.
It’s surprising how much of this wonderfully wacky film actually has a basis in reality — not that it matters beyond the lurid fascination of it. Diana really did flee the royal Christmas holiday at Sandringham with her children, scandalizing the royal family, and really did split from Prince Charles not long afterward. She actually distressed the Windsors by hanging out with the servants, and she had a fast friendship with royal head chef Darren McGrady, excellently played by Sean Harris. (The real-life chef McGrady ultimately went with her after the split.) Diana did have a close confidant in one of her royal dressers (Sally Hawkins in the film — another fabulous performance), and a fractious dislike of another dresser assigned to her. There really was a figure comparable to the intimidating ex–Black Watch martinet overseeing the household in the film, Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), named Air Marshal Sir David Walker, though it’s not clear if Walker was quite the sinister head spy making Diana’s life hell that he is in the film.
And that crazy weighing ritual, requiring each guest to sit on a vintage scale before and after their Christmas stay at Sandringham, in order to prove they’d gained at least three pounds and therefore enjoyed themselves properly? That’s real too. In the film, Diana mocks and resists the tradition described as “just a bit of fun,” because of course her weight is always monitored, her history of bulimia being well-known. Nobody was less likely to gain three pounds than Diana. She also frequently cut herself, though whether she ever did it with wire cutters right before using them to break into the chain-linked, boarded-up Park House is highly doubtful.
That’s one of my favorite moments in the film, really capturing its bold looniness. Diana’s in full breakdown mode, bent on escape from Sandringham in order to “go home” by breaking into Park House. She appears like a demented inmate in front of the astonished servants, wearing the gauzy white and gold tulle gown she was assigned for the evening’s elaborate banquet, with a man’s overcoat covering it, all except the big poufy ruffle sticking out at the bottom. She’s got a large pair of wire-cutters in her hand and says in a voice of cracked command, “I need a torch and a pair of Wellies!”
(That’s a flashlight and a pair of Wellington boots, for those of you who don’t subscribe to BritBox.)
Another favorite line is from Prince Charles, making a last-ditch attempt to reconcile his estranged wife to her royal duties: “You have to learn to do what you hate. For the good of the country.”
“For the good of the country,” she echoes, staring blankly.
You can’t quite call what he’s doing “gaslighting,” since he believes this lunacy himself. That is, that an inbred family of rapacious billionaires eating elaborate meals five times daily and wearing a different formal outfit to each one somehow benefits the people of the British Isles.
Spencer rips into the British monarchy with great élan, using sympathy for the so-called “people’s princess” to throw us into an enjoyable tizzy of horror at the royals, who are so crazy themselves without knowing it, they drive Diana around the bend too. You may look forward with bright anticipation to the hallucinatory scene in which the unraveling Diana, attending the first formal dinner wearing a choker necklace of humongous pearls that Prince Charles gave her for Christmas — which she knows is identical to the string of pearls he gave his mistress — breaks the choker and then spoons up and eats the pearls that have fallen into her soup.
If you like melodrama in all its pop-eyed emotional delirium, merry Christmas to you — your gift has arrived early this year.