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‘Spencer’: a surreal three days in the life of a stifled Princess

Spencer might best be categorised as ‘escapist’ cinema. If you’re going to see this movie expecting an explicit biopic, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you wish to delve into three surreal days from the perspective of a Princess trapped in Royal surrounds, you’ll appreciate Spencer as a small chapter in a very long story about defiance and transcendence.

Rather than relaying actual events, director Pablo Larraín puts a surrealist filter on his lens, capturing what could have been going on in Princess Diana’s mind during one particularly unenjoyable Christmas.

Set over three days, some time in the early 1990s, rumours of Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles have reached their peak; stories of a pending Royal divorce are circulating; and even the Queen is giving Diana the cold shoulder (save for one stern piece of advice toward the end of the movie). While set during the holiday season, Diana – wonderfully impersonated by Kristen Stewart – is feeling not at all relaxed. She keeps being ill, regurgitating her food as issues with bulimia worsen, and she has also had a gutful of old-school tradition, which demands absolute control over what she eats and when, what she wears, how she is to get around, and the limited amount of time she gets to spend with her children.

In one scene, where Diana is going through the different outfits to be worn at breakfast, lunch and dinner, we see a tag that reads: D, P.O.W. The initials could well stand for Diana, Prisoner of War rather than Princess of Wales.

From the very start of the film, there is an Us-and-Them ethos at play. We see a sign in the Sandringham kitchen that reads something along the lines of “Keep very quiet… They hear everything”. ‘They’, of course, being the strict Royals who see Diana as the proverbial black sheep of the Family – too often shaking up tradition while shirking her responsibilities as Queen-in-waiting.

Stewart does a very good job at emulating the stifled Princess, shrugging her shoulders just so; giving that subtle eye roll beneath the side-parted hair; and of course regularly whingeing about the traditional way of things. At one point, Diana says to her children William and Harry, “You know how at school you get taught tenses? Well here there’s just one tense. There is no future, and past and present are the same thing.” Whether the Princess actually said these words or not, they certainly sum up her disregard of stiff, aristocratic convention.

As an unconventional individual himself, director Larraín does a good job of turning the ridiculous into the sublime. He takes absurd old traditions and has his protagonist defying these to surrealist extremes.

In one montage, Diana is seen dancing in one of Sandringham’s expansive quasi-empty rooms – her wardrobe changing from one red carpet look to another. It’s as though Larraín is more infatuated with the Princess’s wardrobe (forced fashion or otherwise) than he is with the real matters at hand. And maybe he is. Still, while this might be criticised as gratuitous filmmaking, it certainly makes for more enjoyable cinema than the usual pomp-and-circumstance narrative.

There are also plenty of references to the military, which Larraín, like Diana, seems very much avert to. There’s the militant way in which the soldiers transport a day’s worth of groceries as if they were moving arms and ammunition; references to the inanity of bird-shooting; and of course the constant war between the paparazzi and the Princess.

Spencer does not intend to add to the sad and serious narrative of Diana’s life. Rather, it presents what could have been going on in the fantastical mind of one fascinating woman: too creative to be kept in check by tired-old tradition and protocol.

Put the Diana biography aside for a moment, and let your own mind drift into a dreamlike state for a while.

Antonino Tati

‘Spencer’ is in cinemas January 26, 2022.

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