There is a tendency in modern pop culture to think that obsession with celebrity gossip can in fact be a righteous pursuit, as long as one engages in it with a sufficiently feminist mindset. That if we can just channel our need for scandalous news about the rich into the deification of powerful women, concerning ourselves with their hair and makeup and dresses and their personal relationships will become good and righteous. That this will be a necessary correction of the celebrity gossip of the previous generation, who were misogynistic and evil.
Feminist branding is a fig leaf, of course, for the same thousands-year-old human impulse to worship power and admire shiny clothes and pretty people, which we only recently learned about. to be ashamed. This false semblance of humanism is revealed in the way we force some public women to adopt our own ideas of cool iconoclasm, no matter who they really are or what they actually do. Like renaming a white octogenarian judge “The Notorious RBG” to make her look more like a dead black rap star. Do we describe them differently because it’s more honest, or just because it flatters us? Maybe shouting “leave Britney alone” isn’t the best way to leave Britney alone.
This mass rebranding exercise comes this week for another public figure too dead to complain, Diana Spencer, the former Princess of Wales and current subject of the new film Spencer, Chilean director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight (CBE, one of the co-creators of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). Larraín and Knight focus their portrayal on a single supposedly representative weekend of Princess Diana’s life: Christmas weekend 1991, when Diana and Charles were on the rocks and at odds over Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. . They were nevertheless trying to keep up appearances, for the sake of the traditional Christmas party at the Sandringham family estate in Norfolk, next to the house where Diana grew up.
I have to note that the film just expects us to prepare with all this background information, about Sandringham, the difficult marriage, Charles’s affairs, as the film does not attempt to convey it here other than through occasional title cards that read “Christmas Eve” or “Christmas Day,” and vague business hints an hour after the movie starts.
Spencer comes across as “a fable of a true tragedy”, which is perhaps another way of saying “a montage of fashion photos with the brilliance of artistic merit”. Throughout the film, Larraín and Knight are constrained by competing impulses: to adore the princess on the one hand, because she is beautiful and a princess with a lot of beautiful clothes, but on the other hand to recognize that the monarchy is a monumental stupid institution. Because on the one hand it is, and on the other hand it must be to position Diana by leaving her as an iconoclast.
They attempt to espouse these conflicting desires by portraying Princess Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, as a reluctant princess, completely skeptical of all this monarchical silliness. She just wants ordinary middle class things! Go drive and eat KFC and put word art above the hearth! (Okay, I added the latter myself, only the first two were in the movie). Maybe I’m missing some necessary context here that the film doesn’t provide, but: Wasn’t Diana Spencer the daughter of a viscount? Someone who grew up on the lands of a royal estate? Didn’t she marry one of the most Howdy Doody-like assholes in the world, probably because he was a prince, because part of her was so in love with the idea of becoming a princess and live that princess lifestyle?
Spencer treats Diana like she’s been kidnapped in all of this, being held against her will. He portrays his life as such a humiliating, excruciating and infuriating sight that you wonder why she isn’t content to let. That Diana was a prisoner is a flattering prospect that actually flattens out. The real Diana surely had more agency than that. Surely she has done more to rebel against mind-numbing traditions than cry, vomit, and be late for dinner. She surely had a personality beyond Spencercheesy notions of beautiful songbirds in golden cages.
SpencerThe most laughable motif is his running comparison of Princess Diana to Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by Henry VIII in 1536 when he thought it would be easier than a divorce. SpencerDiana’s reading a book about Boleyn, who also appears to Diana in visions, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s style (although unlike Kenobi, Boleyn never gives helpful advice). In one of the first scenes, Diana arrives at an official dinner wearing her new pearl necklace, a symbol of Diana’s oppression based on the rumor that Charles gave his mistress an identical set. Diana imagines herself as Boleyn around soup, mistaking her pearls for the executioner’s ax until she begins to choke. When she can’t take it anymore, she breaks the thread that holds the pearls and they cascade around her, raining dramatically on the table and in the soup. What Diane then eat, crunching on pearls presumably in an attempt at magical realism, delivered with all the ostentatious but shallow symbolism of a European perfume advertisement. She is to eat the pearls! Ain’t that fair fabulous?
Larraín and Knight are powerfully trying to inflate this marital feud into something with broader implications, but above all it seems that what Larraín has here is a fold, a fetish for photographing tragic rich women (Spencer seems to assume that because Diana deceased tragically, she had to live tragically too). Between Spencer and his latest film in English, Jackie, it seems nothing excites Larraín more than the idea of a wealthy woman looking sad in ten thousand dollars worth of taffeta. Doubtless if the rich woman is played by a small American actress making bizarre and ostentatious character choices.
Where Natalie Portman played Jackie Onassis with a squeaky accent that looked like a New England debutante to a pornstar, Kristen Stewart manages to outdo her for a remarkable effort. She is rarely without pursed lips or furrowed brows, delivering all of her lines as if hyperventilating, exhaling heavily, or inhaling words through her lower teeth in a stage whisper that’s as hard to understand as it is to listen to. What are you saying? Why are you whispering? Can’t you just speak? Spencer could be our first ASMR biopic.
That the press is obsessed with her, that her husband is mean to her, that her kids have tricked her, these are all things we’re just supposed to deduce. All that we do see Diana cries, Diana vomits, Diana cuts herself, Diana is obsessed like a narcissistic teenager while completely ignoring the good advice of those around her. Sean Harris, as a devoted royal leader, is far more convincing than Diana, the self-pitying kid portrayed in Spencer. Spencer forces Diana to become a victim, seemingly convinced that this is the only way to identify with her. It’s all based on the mistaken assumption that the press obsessed with her was bad, while we obsessed that the press obsessed with her is good.
Or maybe it’s give Spencer too much credit. Perhaps Larraín is content with the image of a woman kneeling over the toilet in a dress worthy of a museum. No shame if this is your problem. For me, there is simply a low limit to how long I can be whispered with a goofy accent.
‘Spencer’ only opens in theaters on November 5. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his archive of film reviews here.