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‘Spencer’ Journeys Beyond the Mythology of Princess Diana Through Horror-Infused Psychodrama

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Trigger Warning: Contains mentions of eating disorders, suicide and self-harm.

“A fable from a true tragedy.”

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is not a biopic. The film’s opening words establish this fact from its very outset.

Set in the early 90s preceding Diana and Charles’ divorce, the film chronicles a claustrophobic three-day period spent at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate residence during the Christmas holidays.

Fact is entangled with fiction as Diana is trapped within her declining marriage to the Prince of Wales, the public persona she is obliged to uphold, and even the grandiosity of the palatial residence itself. An exploration of subjectivity delves into the psychological turmoil that her position cultivates. But the fictitious elements that Larraín employs are treated with such compassion that their departure from actuality never strays exceedingly far from the realm of reality accepted by viewers.

Traversing the psychological aspects of such a recognized protagonist hinges significantly on the performance of its lead. Kristen Stewart manages to embody Diana with an astuteness that causes her presence on screen to vanish amidst her portrayal. A manifestation of Diana’s intertwined resoluteness and fragility is manifested through Stewart as the film expresses the princess’ struggles with bulimia, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.

Each mood she inhabits oscillates in unison with the burgeoning swells of Johnny Greenwood’s jazz-infused score which further captures her nuanced emotions with urgent frenzy. Evident are her attempts to assert control over the inescapable circumstances in her wake, but the relationship with her sons, Harry (Freddie Spry) and William (Jack Nielen), remains an anchor bound by their collective love.

The film begins in a way that demands the audience’s comprehension of its style. On her way to the Norfolk-based estate, a lost Diana stumbles across her childhood home. An old scarecrow gracing the abandoned lot bears a threadbare jacket once belonging to her father. She seizes the garment as a symbol of her past.

In a film that acutely contemplates the nature of appearances, wardrobe is paramount. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran grasps its essentiality eliminating frivolity in the process.

Entering the world of monarchy along with Diana, the tattered jacket acts as a recurring motif. Residing among her meticulously planned holiday wardrobe, it compels her to confront the distinction between the public persona she projects and the self she contains.

As Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) affirms, “There has to be two of you: the real one and the one they take pictures of.”

Even the seemingly arbitrary choice of straying from her prescriptive wardrobe schedule by wearing the Boxing Day lunch selection at the Christmas Day church service causes uproar among advisories.   

But Diana is a free spirit – a woman longing for license within a system created to suppress her energy into that of an idealized figure. Her status as princess insists that she engages in her own mythologizing. Not as a person but as a character constructed of her own likeness.

However, the weighty task of imposing the disappearance of herself as an individual consumes her just as the palatial estate’s walls seem to over the course of the three-day stay. While grand, Sandringham house too is a façade entrapping Diana within its vastness. It is a gilded cage that cinematographer Claire Mathon captures in both its simultaneous magnificence and oppressiveness.

All of Diana’s actions imply a desperate pursuance of freedom from her extraneous constraints. Before the traditional Christmas dinner, she almost absentmindedly lacerates her arm with a pair of wire cutters after piercing through the stitches of her sewn curtains. She uses the same tool to break through the barbed wire fence barricading her childhood home – an environment with memories of her youth so potent that she contemplates plunging down its decrepit staircase as a means of escape.

Though it is only when she realizes that it is not an escape from herself she craves that she is finally free. What was necessary all along was an escape from the very position that thwarted her attempts in asserting agency.

Periodically, the film falls into absurdity with less than subtle symbolism in the vessel of Anne Boleyn and an ending that finds its heroine noshing on a bucket of KFC.

Occasional overindulgence aside, Larraín’s genre-defying interpretation is essential, finding its strength in his supposed understanding of the fact that we exist within a world that has seen so much of Diana but has rarely seen so much about her. Depicting more than a mere caricature of a publicized figure, he establishes a fully realized individual, allowing the audience to observe her for whom she strives to reinhabit – simply Spencer. And as the garments of her persona as Princess of Wales hang from the weathered scarecrow on her old lot, so too does the myth enforced upon her.

So, it is fair to say that Spencer is a film that challenges the notions of traditional biographical drama. It is historical fiction employing elements of black comedy. It is a character study that delves into the depths of the subjectivity of an eminent 20th-century woman. It is an arthouse horror movie in which her stifling circumstance is the central antagonist.

A lover of many things, notably cinema and pop culture, Jodie Applewaithe is a third-year Journalism and Film Studies combined honours student at Carleton University. With her feet on earth and her head in the clouds, she has big dreams for her future which she's working towards by telling a diverse array of stories.