Spencer Review: “He Doesn’t Fall Into the Trap of Making Diana a Saint”

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Spencer, the new film about Diana, Princess of Wales, lays out her credentials from the start. On a foreground of a car lost in a wintry landscape appears the declaration that it is “a fable based on a real tragedy”. And with these words, usefully, he avoids all those pesky questions about historical correctness that have obsessed, say, the Netflix series. The crown. All for the best, perhaps. A glowing review in the The telegraph of the day, praising the “magnificently brave, seductive and uninhibited cinema”, noted with relief that there was “no risk of [director] Pablo Larrain is crazy, sad and beautiful Spencer be mistaken for a historical fact ”.

It’s true. No one will imagine, for example, that during a dinner at Sandringham Diana (Kristen Stewart) really pulled the pearls Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) had just given her from her neck – and then crunched them with tablespoons of soup. Or that she really saved her sons from the smothering bosom of the royal family by sneaking into a Boxing Day pheasant shoot, dressed as a scarecrow, and ripping them off in spectacular fashion. There is no danger – as there was with The crownmuch more plausible inventions of, his presentation of the rumor as a fact – that viewers will believe these are real, recorded events, and judge the Royal Family accordingly.

And yet, in a different sense, Spencer has his eyes riveted on history.

When and where Spencer take place?

The action takes place over the three days of Christmas 1991 (although the dates are not specified). The following year (in 1992, the Queen’s Annus horribilis), Charles and Diana would notoriously separate and there would be no more pretext for a united family. In the film, Diana arrives at Sandringham symbolically lost and (disregarding etiquette) late: giving presents to her boys they can open on Christmas Day – like every other child in the country – rather than the day before Christmas, as do members of the royal family. , in the traditional German way.

The British Royal Family Diana, Princess of Wales, dressed in a red coat with a black hat, Zara Phillips, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Prince Edward, Peter Phillips and Prince Charles attend church service on The Day of Christmas at Sandringham, December 1993 (Photo by Princess Diana Archives / Getty Images)

Another tradition visualized in the film is that the Royal Family did spend Christmas at Sandringham (although between 1964 and 1989 the festivities were moved to Windsor Castle, to accommodate the ever-growing extended Royal Family). So what about the Sandringham portrayed in the movie? Spencer was filmed in several German castles: notably a schloss [roughly akin to a country house] originally built for Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter – Victoria, Princess Royal, later German Empress and Queen of Prussia – and is now a hotel. That’s right, as long as the royal family still honors their German background, and that dates back to good times.

But it is doubtful whether the combination of immense barracks-like grandeur and five-star luxury depicted on-screen fully reflects the reality of Sandringham. The tastes of the royals suggest a sort of dated coziness that rubs shoulders with historic splendor in their homes (the Queen prefers Tupperware containers for her breakfast cereal!) Equally depressing, to Diana’s taste, perhaps .

Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, in the new movie 'Spencer'.

Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, in the new movie ‘Spencer’. (Image by Pablo Larrain / Neon / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy)

But gargantuan meals are a reality (as is the chef’s name “Darren” – possibly taken from Darren McGrady, Elizabeth II’s personal chef – who is portrayed as a supporter of Diana in the film). As for the revealing scene where a reluctant Diana (secretly suffering from bulimia nervosa, as in real life) is weighed on her arrival: it’s part of an obscure lore that sees guests point in and out, to see if they have eaten enough to prove they had a good time at the table. Official information only describes scales – of the same type used by jockeys; dated c1872 but still in Sandringham – which “were” used to weigh guests on arrival and departure. There are many who claim that the bizarre, supposedly joking practice continues to this day.

The weight of tradition

Perhaps the point is this: there were a few “royal protocol advisers” on hand to signify that all Spencerhe was “wrong”, he did it knowingly. The dramatic choices all suggest the weight of tradition – and service and luxury – by which Diana is oppressed. Writer James Pope-Hennessy, visiting Sandringham in the 1950s, described it as “a hideous house with a horrible feel in some parts and in others no atmosphere at all,” adding: “It was like a visit to the morgue “.

When it comes to the royal family, of course, it’s hard for fiction to be stranger than reality. In Sandringham, Diana tells her sons that there is no future; past and present are the same thing. The point of the film on time is continued with insistence. What will they say to her in a thousand years, she asks her devoted dresser (played by Sally Hawkins).

Members of the royal family, Kristen Stewart’s Diana notes, tend to be described with a slogan that gets shorter and shorter as time goes on – William ‘the Conqueror’, Elizabeth ‘the Virgin’. What will it be for her, she asks – Diana “the crazy”? In fact, Diana finds, a better answer lies in the title of a biography of Anne Boleyn that was left beside her bed – a book about Anne ‘a martyr’.

Unlike previous screen versions, this doesn’t make Charles a monster. In this, perhaps, he won from the point of view given by almost 25 years of history

But if the film is on Diana’s side, it doesn’t fall into the trap of making her a saint. Unlike previous screen versions in the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997, this doesn’t make Charles a monster either. In this, perhaps, he won from the point of view given by nearly 25 years of history. Charles isn’t that bad, his dresser tells Diana – “none of them are.” Even the ever-vigilant sinister squire, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), determined to lock the Wandering Princess into the quill of royal protocol, is granted a moment of humanity in which he explains his allegiance – to the Crown itself, rather than any individual. This is not an attitude this Diana shares, but it has its own validity.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, (Image by Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection / Alamy)

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, (Image by Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection / Alamy)

While the disapproval of real-life courtiers was likely quieter, or less overtly expressed, it’s probably a compromise allowed for anyone trying to make a movie. The characters in the film repeatedly suggest that in Sandringham everyone hears everything; that there are no secrets. This perhaps alludes to the fact that it was from Sandringham that Diana made the buggy “Squidgygate” calls to James Gilbey – leaked under such suspicious circumstances – who saw her and her husband convicted in the press. for adultery.

Yet the moral of this “fable” is that Diana not only would, but should to free himself from his particular prince, and the constraints imposed by his position. She does so with the support of an unlikely ally – the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson). The film chooses to draw a parallel with the idea that the decapitated queen of Henry VIII was another woman who married into the royal family of England and ended up regretting it. In a dramatic choice, the film shows Diana grieving because the aforementioned pearls Charles gave her are identical to the ones he gave to Camilla Parker Bowles, his longtime mistress. When Anne (she says) saw Jane Seymour wearing a miniature of Henry, identical to the one she was wearing herself, she simply ripped it off her own neck.

The lesson, clearly, is that Diana has to do the same – as in fact she did. Less dramatically and decisively than in the movie, perhaps – but it was in early 1992 that Diana wrote (considering Andrew Morton’s next book, in which she had participated): “Obviously we are preparing for the volcano eruption and I feel better equipped for whatever comes along. ours. Soon after, she began the formal process of ending her marriage to a prince – a modern take on the old tale, perhaps. And as for the fact that she didn’t, in fact, live happily ever after… that goes beyond the tale of this fairy tale.

Spencer is directed by Pablo Larraín and stars Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales, and will hit theaters in the UK from November 5, 2021

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