starring Kristen Stewart, Sean Harris, Amy Manson, Sally Hawkins
written by Steven Knight
directed by Pablo Larrain
by Walter Chaw The last 12 minutes or so of Derek Jarman's excoriating, experimental The Last of England is just Tilda Swinton armed with garden shears, framed against a stark background, ripping through her wedding dress in a rapture of rage--a resounding rejection (or a prophecy of the inevitable fall) of the tradition and ritual, the future and hope, that marriages represent. The whole film is scenes of atrocity and decay intercut with home movies of the child this bride was, the couple this bride is a part of, and the calamity of the union into which society has forced her, culminating in this exorcism of these ties that bind. It's one of the great exits in Jarman, and The Last of England's afterimage is all over Pablo Larrain's impressionistic Spencer, a biography of three miserable days, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, at the end of Princess Diana's tenure. It seeps through especially in a sequence where Diana (Kristen Stewart) dances by herself down the empty halls of Sandringham, an act of rebelling against the norms and controls imposed on her by the misfortune of her station. The scene would play perfectly against the mute wanderings of a grief-stricken Jackie Onassis in Larrain's previous examination of a woman encased--and left adrift--in a patriarchal system of power and exchange, Jackie. They are complementary portraits of the suffocation of empire. Both can be unpacked by Jarman's takedown of Thatcher's England, and all three left me a mess.
Spencer opens as massive preparations unfold under the eye of Chef McGrady (Sean Harris) for a series of lavish holiday meals at Sandringham House in Norfolk, which shares the grounds, as it happens, with the Princess of Wales' childhood home, Park House, leased by her family for a time from Elizabeth II. It's all very incestual, per custom. Believing she can't get lost in the place where she was born, Diana evades her driver and her retinue--to the great consternation of the Royal Family, who already hate her for her impetuousness and popularity amongst the commoners--and promptly gets lost. She does, however, manage to find an old, weatherbeaten scarecrow in a field that is still dressed in one of her late father's coats. She rescues the coat and puts it on a rack in her room, the better to seek counsel from it in a way not entirely unlike Dorothy's reliance on the Scarecrow: two lost girls and the fools they free from the cross. There's a second lost girl in Spencer, though, and even a third: Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), who appears to Diana in her lowest moments; and Royal Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), the only person Diana can trust, in part because Maggie has secrets of her own. Diana refuses to wear what's been picked out for her for each meal and ritual. She can't respect schedules because of her panic at being in the company of an imperious cold fish of a husband, Charles (Jack Farthing), and his open philandering. "He gave me the same oil painting of himself in a locket he gave to her," warns the shade of Boleyn as Diana puts on a pearl necklace identical to the one Camilla Parker Bowles wears.
If the Boleyn comparison seems on-the-nose, drawing a line from a popular Queen martyred to the sexual proclivities of her monarch spouse, Larrain makes a virtue of the analogy by not wrapping it in any sort of art. He's blunt. He declares in Spencer with Diana's early "Do they think they're going to kill me?" query, posed in fear and seriousness, that he has no intention of shying away from the Royal Family's long history of dealing with inconvenient women by putting them either in towers or in the ground. The conspiracy around Diana's death as having something to do with Royal shenanigans has the hooks it does because it's both plausible and with myriad precedent. During that first holiday meal, Larrain announces his other intention of portraying Diana's bulimia as a means through which she's seeking to win control of her body. He accomplishes this by showing the gory details of purging and the triggering agony of being forced to weigh in before and after a meal. Here we see the oppressive pressure Diana's under to maintain sometimes-literal appearances.
Spencer is an emotional biography, not a historical one. More memoir than manifesto, its subject is how women are currency--literal currency, in the case of the Royals--to be spent or hoarded in the name of some idealized notion of value. This is a film about how life is for the living of it. Its best scenes may be the ones between Diana and her children, William (Jack Nielen) and young Harry (Freddie Spry), who adore their mum and go through agonies when she has her breakdowns not only for her pain but also for the trouble she's going to get in with the Establishment. But there are moments, too, where they play with one another and where Diana bucks tradition by giving her boys presents they can open on Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, as is, yes, tradition. "They only live in the past, and for them the present is the past," she tells the boys. Over it all hangs our knowledge that Harry, too, fled the Royals after his wife was subjected to media scrutiny and worse. From what little we know, he encountered the same disapproval and treachery from within the Royal Family.
Stewart makes for an exceptional Diana, playing her as a variation on her personal brand of anxious, intelligent woman forced to contort herself into impossible boxes for the pleasure of others. She finds a motive for Diana's hunched, head-down gait, adopting it when in the company of those who burden her with expectation and abandoning it, as if shrugging off a great and unwanted coat, when amongst those who do not. Like Natalie Portman in Jackie, she is the perfect muse for Larrain's near-tactile considerations of the architecture of uniformity and the way some people constantly batter themselves against it. Stewart's Diana is a caged thing. She tells Maggie at one point that she's hopelessly common, and Larrain portrays that as a love of fast food and Mike + the Mechanics. She says she needs to be free, and Larrain has her cutting open curtains that were sewn shut to defeat the prying eyes of an insistent press. Spencer is, like The Last of England, not subtle, though it does manage in the end a kind of sublimity. It's an unlikely companion piece to Mad Max: Fury Road in its central conceit that women are not things and would rather die than be treated as such--a film about madness in which the one we would most like to think of as mad is the only one who isn't. And then we killed her. Just in case you're wondering how things are going.