There exists in modern pop culture a certain strain of thinking that holds that celebrity gossip obsession can actually be a righteous pursuit, so long as one engages in it with a sufficiently feminist mindset. That if we can just channel our need for scandalous news about the wealthy into the deification of powerful women, concerning ourselves with their hair and their makeup and their dresses and their personal relationships will become good and just. That it will be a necessary correction of the previous generation’s brand of celebrity gossip, which was misogynist and bad.
The feminist branding is a figleaf, of course, for the same thousands-of-years-old human impulse to worship power and gawp at shiny clothes and pretty people, about which we’ve only recently learned to become ashamed. This phony humanism’s pretense is revealed in the way we force certain public women into our own ideas of cool iconoclasm, no matter who they actually are or what they actually do. Like rebranding a white octogenarian judge “The Notorious RBG” to make her sound more like a dead black rap star. Are we depicting them differently because it’s more honest, or simply because it flatters us? Maybe screaming “leave Britney alone” isn’t the best method of leaving 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 movie Spencer, from 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 depiction on just one supposedly-representative weekend in the life of Princess Diana: Christmas weekend 1991, when Diana and Charles were on the rocks and at odds over Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. They were attempting nonetheless to keep up appearances, for the sake of the traditional Christmas celebration at the family’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, next to the house where Diana grew up.
I should note that the movie simply expects us to come prepared with all this background information, about Sandringham, about the rocky marriage, about Charles’s affairs, as the film makes no attempt to convey it here other than through occasional title cards that read “Christmas Eve” or “Christmas Day,” and vague allusions to affairs an hour into the film.
Spencer bills itself as “a fable from a true tragedy,” which is maybe another way of saying “a montage of fashion shoots with the sheen of artistic merit.” Throughout the film, Larraín and Knight are constrained by competing impulses: to worship the princess on the one hand, because she is beautiful and a princess with many fine clothes, but on the other to acknowledge that the monarchy is a monumentally silly institution. Because for one thing it is, and for another it has to be in order to position Diana leaving it as iconoclastic.
They attempt to marry these conflicting desires by depicting Princess Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, as a reluctant princess, thoroughly skeptical of all this monarchical silliness. She just wants regular middle-class things! Going for drives and eating KFC and placing word art above the hearth! (Okay I added that last one myself, only the first two were in the film). Perhaps I’m missing some necessary context here that the movie fails to provide, but: wasn’t Diana Spencer the daughter of a viscount? Someone who grew up on the grounds of a royal estate? Did she not marry one of the world’s most Howdy Doody-looking ass dorks presumably on the basis that he was a prince, because some part of her was so enamored with the idea of becoming a princess and living that princess lifestyle?
Spencer treats Diana as if she was kidnapped into all this, being held against her will. It depicts her life as such a demeaning, excruciating, maddening spectacle that you wonder why she doesn’t just leave. That Diana was a prisoner is a perspective meant to flatter that actually flattens. Surely the real Diana had more agency than this. Surely she did more to rebel against stultifying traditions than cry, puke, and be late to dinner. Surely she had a personality beyond Spencer‘s corny notions of beautiful songbirds in gilded cages.
Spencer‘s most laughable motif is its running comparison of Princess Diana to Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by Henry VIII in 1536 when he figured that would be easier than getting a divorce. Spencer‘s Diana reads a book about Boleyn, who also appears to Diana in visions, Obi-Wan Kenobi-style (though, unlike Kenobi, Boleyn never offers any useful advice). In one early scene, Diana arrives at a formal dinner wearing her new necklace of pearls, a symbol of Diana’s oppression based on the rumor that Charles gifted an identical set to his mistress. Diana imagines herself as Boleyn over soup, conflating her pearls with the headsman’s ax until she begins to choke. When she finally can’t take it any longer she snaps the strand holding the pearls and they cascade around her, raining down dramatically onto the table and into the soup. Which Diana then eats, crunching on the pearls presumably in some attempt at magical realism, delivered with all the ostentatious but thimble shallow symbolism of a European perfume ad. She’s eating the pearls! Isn’t it just fabulous?
Larraín and Knight try mightily to inflate this marital squabble into something with larger implications, but mostly it seems like what Larraín has here is a kink, a fetish for photographing tragic wealthy women (Spencer seems to assume that because Diana died tragically she must’ve lived tragically too). Between Spencer and his last English-languge film, Jackie, it seems nothing excites Larraín more than the idea of a rich woman looking sad in ten thousand dollars worth of taffeta. Doubly so if the rich woman is played by a petite American actress making bizarre and ostentatious character choices.
Where Natalie Portman played Jackie Onassis in a grating accent that sounded like New England debutante by way of a porn star, Kristen Stewart manages to outdo her for conspicuous effort. She’s rarely without pursed lips or furrowed brow, delivering all her lines like she’s hyperventilating, heavily exhaling or inhaling words through her bottom teeth in a clipped 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 talk? Spencer might be our first ASMR biopic.
That the press is obsessed with her, that her husband is mean to her, that her children have trapped her, these are all things we’re merely meant to infer. All we actually see is Diana crying, Diana puking, Diana cutting herself, Diana obsessing like a narcissistic teenager while ignoring perfectly good advice from people around her. Sean Harris as the devoted royal chef is miles more compelling than Diana the self-pitying brat depicted in Spencer. Spencer forces Diana into victimhood, seemingly under the belief that that’s the only way we can relate to her. It’s all based on the faulty assumption that the press being obsessed with her was bad, while us being obsessed with the press being obsessed with her is good.
Or maybe that’s giving Spencer too much credit. Maybe Larraín merely gets off on the image of a woman kneeling over a toilet in a dress worthy of a museum. No shame if that’s your kink. For me, there’s simply a low limit to how long I can be huskily whispered at in a cretinous accent.