Love her or hate her, Princess Di has always fascinated people. The movies about her began long before her death in 1997. As early as 1996, Princess in Love described her affair with her riding instructor Captain James Hewitt and the misery of her trapped marriage with the heir to the British throne.
Not to mention the amateurish episodes of The Crown covering her bulimia and the hostility of most of the royal family towards her. “She just doesn’t fit in,” as one of the characters says. There is even Diana the Musical in which Christopher Lee, not his best moment by any stretch of imagination, plays the Duke of Edinburgh. Not to mention a couple of hushed foreign movies which favour the conspiracy view that a future queen was murdered in a staged traffic pile up in Paris. The theme is known in the trade as car crash cinema.
The latest 2021 extravaganza is the one word title “Spencer” which, taken alone, sounds almost like a threat to the House of Windsor. It describes a very miserable Christmas weekend in 1990 when the royal family dutifully gathered as the marriage of Charles and Di foundered on the rocks of adultery and misunderstandings. The central couple share only one scene in private as he tells her that being in the royal family means you have to do stuff you don’t want to do. Well, that’s true of any family.
Spencer is not a documentary by any stretch of the imagination. It contains several dream sequences in which actress Kristen Stewart – who doesn’t look much like Di – meets Anne Boleyn who had her head chopped off so that Henry the Eighth could bed another young woman. There is also a fantasy scene in which Di is forced to wear a string of pearls and ends up eating one of them which turns up in her soup. Vomiting of course follows.
Although it is obviously true that Di was miserable as her marriage went from bad to worse, the movie is as much fable as fact. She gets lost in an area she grew up in as a child which reflects how she tries and fails to live up to royal expectations in real life. She is greeted on arrival at the royal Christmas get-together by the queen mother’s equerry played by the unsmiling Timothy Spall whose real job is clearly to observe Di’s every move and report back to his boss. Good movie material.
Spencer is a movie devoted to melancholia. There is no deepness in Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Di: she is just unhappy all the time. As the director Pablio Larrain said at a press conference, “it’s a fairy tale upside down”. But Prince Charles is not portrayed as a villain. He is just as trapped as his wife in an ancient institution run by servants and functionaries. Actually it was Charles who gave Di a last chance at happiness. He did eventually agree to a divorce.