Film blog: Spencer
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Spencer pulls zero punches with its depiction of Diana and the Royals in their final Christmas period at Sandringham; film-making so unapologetic in its agenda and purpose, that when dealing with a real story in which the subjects of the film are still alive, what could have been a piece that tries to stick to unimpeachable historical realities like Netflix’s The Crown, instead actually makes a point about royal power and the people it chews up and spits out. Cinematically Spencer is a psychological horror, depicting an isolated woman torn apart by emotional abuse, torn between dedication to her children and her inner sanctity and peace as a derided social figure by the most powerful establishment in the world. The symbolism and use of metaphor to frame the tragedy within the physical and psychological space of and invasion by the British Royal Family is powerful and present from the off. From the militarisation of food and Diana’s diet; as a local branch of the army is enrolled to bring in the palace’s sweetmeats in ammunition boxes, to their concealment of her and the family’s true self from the world through the obsession on her curtains, to the restriction on her physical space and movement both in general and in the Sandringham estate, metaphors of royal imprisonment loom large over the film.
Through these motifs, the rank and archaic pomposity and ceremony of the family and all it embodies are used as a stick to criticise and condemn, casting a damning eye on the brutal humiliation, social derision, and isolation from her family that the Royals meted out to Diana. The cinematographic depiction of the few family members who were afforded proper characterisation and dialogue was also striking, generally viewed by the audience at a distance, their faces besmirched with horrifying glares, grimaces, and gloats towards our protagonist, their only dialogue to maximise pressure and misery on Diana. They also bore zero positive emotion, Charles and his mother played an ongoing game of misery one-upmanship, with the only reference to glee being a deriding smirk in Diana’s direction. While you might expect a Christmas break to exhibit some moments of festive joy; as Diana’s dresser and ally in Sandringham Maggie says of Charles “he’s not all bad”; the family is cast as robotic, loathsome, and hateful. While this depiction undoubtedly speaks to the filmmaker’s agenda in making the film; portraying Charles, the Queen, Timothy Spall’s excellently portrayed royal confidante Alistair, and the warlike imposition of Sandringham, all as hostile elements hell-bent on driving Diana to a psychological collapse, it also reveals a subtler and more philosophic critique of the Royal Family as an historic ruling institution.
A scene in the house’s library provides the first confrontation between Diana and Charles over the period, as the latter’s candid confessions around royal ideology and maintaining one’s distinction between private and public personas reveal much of the film’s creative soul. After a testy exchange on suspected infidelity and the estate’s encirclement by tabloid paparazzi, Charles instructs Diana on the need to conceal her true self, that as a Royal “You have to be able to make your body do things you hate” as the nation “doesn’t want us to be people”. While an indictment on Charles’s character and abusive behaviour and attitude towards Diana, it also points to a hatred of one’s self, one’s purpose, and even one’s life as a Royal. To be Royal is to be a bacterial cell in a petri dish, every movement, development, and change to be assiduously studied, documented, and cross-examined. Charles’s awareness of this means you can hardly believe he is even fooling himself in the assertion that you can deign to maintain a separation between public and private lives.
It is from this portrayal of royal power and maintaining power that the real crux of the family’s resentment of Diana can be found. Striking contemporary comparisons to depictions of and attitudes to Meghan Markle, in both the film and real life, Diana has the gall to break free from the unnatural chains of bondage upon which being a Royal rests, daring to turn her nose up at the archaic tradition of being weighed before and after the Christmas period to ensure you put on a few pounds, arriving late to Sandringham after cheekily running over to a local scarecrow to steal back her dad’s jacket from years gone by, and finally taking her sons away from the Boxing Day hunt to have a KFC dinner by the River Thames.
Their resentment, therefore, lies in this and in the real-life Diana’s greatest trait: courage. Courage to live life by her own values and pleasures, courage to subvert royal convention and fight back in the public sphere against the man who cheated on and humiliated her, and the ultimate courage to eventually leave the Royal Family and its shackles altogether. Charles, by comparison, has not the strength of character or perceived ability to abandon this life in which he routinely does things he hates, and when Diana pulls the regal rug from underneath his Highness’s feet; by defying his and by extension the Royal Family’s power, she becomes a threat. A threat with contemporary relevance, a threat to the very thin and steadily collapsing veil of royal power, one that is pertinently unfit for purpose in the modern age, one that despite pangs of self-hatred, futility, and growing calls for a national conversation on royal power, still insists on its own self-importance for the family and nation united as one.