Tuesday, November 16, 2021

“Spencer”: A Royal Family to Die For

 What do I think of the late Princess Diana? I’m not what you’d call heartless; though I hardly qualify as a someone obsessed with the ins and outs of royal families, both Diana’s triumphs and her tragedies have always struck me as deeply touching. Why, then, did I find myself sitting restlessly through Kristen Stewart’s acclaimed portrayal of Diana in Spencer, muttering “Get a grip!”?

 No question that Lady Diana Spencer got a raw deal. I recall the excitement when this virginal young pre-school aide was announced as the bride-to-be of Britain’s Prince of Wales. After a fairytale wedding and the birth of two sons (“an heir and a spare”), it became painfully clear that Prince Charles was otherwise engaged. I’ll say this for Charles: he seems to be the picture of constancy. Both then and now, the only true woman in his life (aside from his mother, the queen) has been Camilla Parker Bowles, the divorcee who was finally able to marry her longtime lover in 2005.

 What was most appealing about Diana in her lifetime was her common touch: her ability to connect with people on the lower end of the social spectrum. From all reports, the coldness of the House of Windsor toward her reflected a sense that she, and not they, had won the hearts of the populace. Not surprisingly, she was at her worst when surrounded by stuffy royal protocol, as during the three days the film depicts. Aside from certain flights of fantasy, it’s set mostly in the royal residence at Sandringham House, Norfolk, where the Windsors have retreated to celebrate the Christmas holidays with what for them passes for “a bit of fun.” (Schedules are strictly followed; lavish meals are served with military precision; every guest must be weighed on an antique scale both upon arrival and when leaving. This last is a custom instituted in the 19th century by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, to prove that all visitors have eaten heartily, thereby gaining an appropriate amount of weight.) 

 As depicted on-screen, Diana is fully aware that her marriage is a sham. Even her Christmas gift from Charles, a massive pearl necklace, is identical to the one he has purchased for Camilla. Arriving late and alone (thereby violating several taboos at the outset), she neglects to draw the drapes of her suite when changing clothing, thus earning a reprimand from the Veddy Military house equerry (Timothy Spall), who warns about paparazzi swarming the vicinity. And she’s not happy at all with the dresser assigned to her, nor with the outfits pre-selected for the various dining activities. Though we’re told that the staff quietly sympathizes with her plight, she hardly makes their work any easier when she rejects a chambermaid’s ministrations and scurries to the pantry to gorge after-hours on the sweets she won’t touch at the table.  Her personal anguish is almost her entire focus, to the point where she’s fantasizing about her ancient kinswoman Anne Boleyn, the one-time bride of Henry VIII. (Hey, Diana’s lot may be difficult, but no one’s planning to chop her head off!)

 This Diana blossoms only when she interacts with her two adoring young sons. Their scenes together are the film’s best, practically the only ones that show Diana’s capacity for warmth. But mostly she suffers, suffers, suffers. (As did I, in watching.) Director Pablo Larrain captures strong visual moments, but is overly in love with symbols: that pearl necklace, the jacket on a scarecrow, the beautiful plumage of a dead pheasant. Three days at Sandringham at Christmas? I can think of worse kinds of torture.


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