A Different Diana
The entire film is from the perspective of Diana, a Diana who is on the verge of a breakdown, a Diana who suffers from a bulimic disorder and suicidal tendencies, a Diana who is pained by Charles’ betrayal and a Diana who is fed up with shouldering royal responsibilities which are snuffing out her real self. Jason Ghosh reviews Larraine’s ‘Spencer’.
Netflix is awash with films and documentaries on the British royalty. Films like ‘The Crown’ and documentaries like ‘Diana’ are extremely popular, perhaps because they are stories of the beautiful and enigmatic royal ladies. But too much of even a good thing tends to pall. So, when Pablo Larraine’s film ‘Spencer’, about Diana Spencer, released in November, I did not make a beeline to watch it. But before I knew it, the film was being discussed ad nauseum for its touching and nuanced acting by ‘Twilight’ star Kristen Stewart. When predictions started surfacing that the film was a front runner contender for ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Actor (Female) Academy Awards, I realised it was high time to watch this film.
I will be honest and admit that the film surprised me. I had expected an accurate, historic biopic along the lines of ‘The Crown’ or ‘Jackie’ (Larraine’s previous biopic) but I was brought face to face with a story of a broken woman with some sketchy overtones of history. The story is set against the background of the Queen’s annual Christmas holiday gathering at Sandringham Castle in 1991 which is attended by the royal family including Charles and Diana. The entire film is from the perspective of Diana, a Diana who is on the verge of a breakdown, a Diana who suffers from a bulimic disorder and suicidal tendencies, a Diana who is pained by Charles’ betrayal and a Diana who is fed up with shouldering royal responsibilities which are snuffing out her real self. A troubled Diana is seen attempting to sew together the schism between her two selves ‘the real you’ and the ‘one they take pictures of.’ But probably the bond between Charles and Camilla is the ultimate betrayal, the tipping point which pushes Diana to decide she wanted to be free of royal fetters. ‘Three days. That’s it’, seems to be her talisman, as she waits for the Christmas vacation to end. The montage where, Diana, the child, the teenager, the young woman and the young princess is shown running, almost fleeing, suggests her final decision of renouncing Charles and the royalty. The short montage where she is shown dancing in different outfits also suggests her need to let go an artificial life where she cannot be herself. But she is also a mother, a very loving and caring one at that. So, with Charles’ permission she takes her sons with her to London to bring them up like normal children. The film also hints at her eventual death in an accident. The ghost of Anne Boleyn, the beheaded queen of Henry VIII, follows her around cajoling her to Go! Run!!, leave the toxic marriage and aristocracy. The death of Anne draws a parallel with Diana’s ultimate demise. Also, in one scene, Diana looks up at the hillside on which a grave is visible and asks matter-of-factly, ‘Do you think they want to kill me?’
The story is not about Diana as she appeared to the public-beautiful, enchanting, unruffled. The Diana we see is unhappy, sad, on the verge of tears wondering ‘what happened’ to her life. At one point in time, her son, Harry asks her, ‘what has happened Mummy to make you so sad?’ As Steven Knight, the scriptwriter says about the film, ‘It’s never the meal, it’s the dirty dishes. It’s the wrapping paper between the presents being opened. It’s always her sort of getting dressed or undressing.’ Diana’s story becomes a metaphor for women caught up in painful relationships and circumstances but with the gumption to break out of their cages and fly alone. The film ends on a happy note as we see Diana and the children starting on a new journey with the song ‘All I need is a miracle’ playing in the background. Probably the name of the film suggests that Diana has found herself, her real self. The film leaves you with mixed feelings. You are saddened by how a young life is caged by societal norms and royal restrictions, but you are also happy that she has the strength to escape. It is not so much a ‘fable based on a real-life tragedy’ as Larraine calls it, but a fairy tale about a modern-day princess who takes on the ‘gentlemen in grey suits.’ Stewart has enacted a troubled Diana with heart stopping intensity. She certainly deserves an Oscar for her acting. Beautiful. Almost poetic.