Politics on Screen: Pablo Larrain’s ‘Spencer’ and the Resurgence of the Diana Obsession

The People’s Princess: an oxymoron of terms to some and a feat which only one woman has ever gotten right, Diana is still loved by the world. The Diana wave has hit another generation by storm, and I blame The Crown – mainly for the fact that I’m also looking coyly into the mirror and practicing my ‘alright’s’ like the rest of the Gen-Z army that are sticking their middle fingers up to the monarchy. The dawn of the newest (and admittingly my personal favourite) Diana narrative takes form in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer. Whilst simultaneously complaining that this, along with a hideous Netflix musical which will not be named, was simply too much Di-media in the space of a year, I was also internally screaming about the fact that the hair was nowhere near accurate.

But I loved it…. Getting past the hair was a struggle, but I was in love with it. Whereas Oliver Hirschbeigel decided to fashion his 2013 biopic of the Princess into a washy rom com, Spencer took Diana’s tainted world to the hues of Sophia Coppola, and finally the tragedy of a fetishized princess substitutes beauty for discomfort. Both an everywoman, and a mother of a future king, Diana’s impossibly universal relatability is what our own mothers clung to, and still, in the face of questionable economic politics, allegedly sexually abusive princes and investigations of potential racism, Diana remains the martyr of all that is anti-monarchy and we grip onto her bones as if they’re batons to jeer with at the palace gates. As a figure eternally with an enormous media presence, the hounding of The Princess of Wales did not end with her death in 1997 but was simply transfigured from reporter microphones to boom mics and light boxes, as the world continues to fashion her pain into the ‘girl boss, good for her’ cookie cutter narrative.

Does this mean cinematic reinterpretations of Diana’s story should stop? Surely many other historical figures are regurgitated into film more times than necessary, and yet with Diana’s story, despite what is perhaps a well-intended urge to represent what is constantly pushed beneath the surface by the royal family, it feels that with each reincarnation filmmakers are simply grasping onto the commodification of girlhood as desirable through both its beauty and pain combined. In terms of the anti-monarchy narrative, there’s more ways of cinematising it than simply feeding on the remains of a woman whose entire life was a desire for escape from the Firm rather than an eternal shackle to it. Also in her privilege and wealth, the perpetuation of Di-media further clings to the idea of the upper-class, white tragedy tales as the ones with the utmost value.

Image Source: Still via Youtube // Spencer Trailer #1

Onto Spencer itself; it’s difficult for me as someone who believes Diana shouldn’t be weaponized by cinematic politics, and also as someone who consumes almost all said media there is, to discuss Larrain’s film through a negative lens. But I think that this film in particular, despite leaning slightly into the realm of Oscar-bait, combines this duality that resides in the awkward relatability of modern Di-media and offers an angle that is as I believe, previously unseen in either The Crown or 2013’s Diana. It distances her. Many are often in angst at films that favour style over substance, and don’t get me wrong Spencer has much of both, but its visuals alone I feel consumes that claustrophobia of constant performance and glamour, where viewers are thus invited in, but kept (with caution) at arm’s length.

The film itself is only very loosely based on factual details; with Kristen Stewart at its heart (a perfect casting in her own history of paparazzi awkwardness), Spencer pervades the closed doors of Sandringham at Christmas, 1991. The rules and regulations of royal life are what viewers know and gossip about, and yet Larrins’ emphasis of the film as a ‘fable from a true tragedy’ in its epigraph truly surmises its difference from its predecessors. Where previous imaginations seek to formulaically narrate the authentic ‘truth’ of the Diana & Charles years, Spencer is less intent on ticking off documentary accurate events and instead offers viewers a character study. With the prying eye of an over-shoulder camera, disjoined violins and fashion montage, Larrain’s film is self-reflexive in its notions of performance as the viewers are pitted against our Princess through the lens of her newspaper enemies. Balanced on the chaos of an eclectic jazz soundtrack and a touch of surrealism, Diana is both running from the Firm and from us, demonstrating her self-brutality in a way that viewers simply cannot glaze over. Larrain’s Diana thus attempts to show viewers that she’s no saint, and yet the skill of his camera encourages us to recognise the irony in continuously perceiving her as one.

 With her death still remaining largely recent, and with her relevancy to modern debates of Megan Markle’s personal experience with the monarchy, it’s understandable that filmmakers seek to weld Diana’s story to contemporary political grounding, and yet each of these snapshots offer us mostly the same factual narrative; is not the wealth of documentary footage available enough for us to understand the Princess’ struggle without pining for a martyr already dead 24 years? Larrain’s film offers subjectivity in its insights into Diana’s psychological self and yet I feel that it should be the feature to close the bracket for Diana centred cinema in such a focused way. Despite this however, a critical lens upon the monarchy and its cinematic noise must maintain at maximum volume, because despite hiding behind Rococo walls, ‘they can hear you’.

– Mia Roe

Featured Image: Still via Youtube // Spencer Trailer #1 (2021) | Movieclips Trailers

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