There have been princesses and innumerable stories of their fortunate or unfortunate circumstances, but none of those narratives come close to the enigma that Princess Diana was in her brief time at the Buckingham Palace. Shrouded in mystery and a whole lot of love, the People’s Princess have successfully managed to remain in the public consciousness long after her tragic death by accident in 1997. Recent onslaught of web series and documentaries on the British monarchy is an example of how people all over the world love fairy tales and ideas of grandeur that such divisive social structures perpetrate. Pablo Larrain in his recent experiment of weaving a fable around a tragic woman accidentally put in position of power and public gaze takes up the cause of Princess Diana (previously he had made Jackie based on Jacqueline Kennedy’s much publicized funeral of her husband and President of the United States John F. Kennedy).
At the start of the film Larrain mentions, ‘A fable from a true tragedy’, taking off the burden of narrative authenticity from the film. As he himself confesses to Mark Olsen and Yvonne Villarreal from LA Times that even after all the research and completing a full-fledged film on the Princess he is still not sure if he truly understood Diana at all. But despite his unsureness what he does successfully manage is take some well-known accounts of Diana’s lifestyle and compress them into a three days foray into an exhausting and claustrophobic Christmas celebration of the British Royalty.
The film opens to a truck load of ingredients and food being carried into the kitchens of Sandringham Palace, which has the words, ‘Keep noise to a minimum, they can hear you’ written on its walls, with military like disciplined lines of cooks as if marching into war. For the kitchen staff and head chef, Darren (Sean Harris) the three days are like a military coup, where the war is won only if Princess Diana relishes the food that is placed in front of her. Diana’s (Kristen Stewart) struggles with eating disorder and bulimia is something that has become common knowledge. The stifling environment inside the palace with no one to trust along with her husband Prince William’s (Jack Farthing) open relationship with Caroline had affected Diana with an intensity that left her psychologically spent; the repercussions of which found expression in her physical inability to keep food in her stomach. The bouts of over eating and lack of appetite seem to heavily juxtapose each other in Diana’s life. Even in the film we see Diana sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night and picking up pastries and fruits and gateaux and eating with an urgency as if she will get caught in the act and be judged. This fear of her does not seem baseless when we see Timothee Spall prowling the Palace with his shrewd eyes keeping a tight noose around Diana’s neck trying to keep her actions in tandem with the rest of the family. At the beginning of the three-day sombre Christmas party, we are introduced to Spall’s character waiting by a weighing machine and as Diana enters, she is informed that her weight will be noted at the beginning and end of the three days to measure how much fun everyone had during that interval. This is noted as some ‘harmless fun’ that was introduced by Prince Albert in 1847 and which has become a tradition of sorts. In the next few days there will many more such harmless fun that Diana is expected to be part of.
Surrounded by couture fashion life of a royalty is all about appearances. One of the important aspects of Diana was her ability to look her authentic self in front of the camera, an attitude that won her the hearts of the public. But it also brought rebuke to her from the royal family who revelled in the idea of unapproachability and being different from the public. For instance, unlike the rest of the world who open presents on Christmas mornings, the royal family open presents on the eve of Christmas since royalty gets the best presents earlier. Diana on the other hand identifies herself as someone with ‘middle class’ tastes, who wants to go to fast food joints and have burgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken, or go out into the world at some pub and have fun. But without having the option to do all that and having a stern gaze following her wherever she goes, the life as the princess seem to fall apart at the seam. When she finds a book on Anne Boleyn, the Queen who was beheaded by King Henry VIII so that he can marry his mistress, she starts seeing Anne Boleyn’s ghost following her, unconsciously convincing Diana that her fate will be a similar one.
In a series of dream sequences and close up shots the internal turmoil that Diana was facing has been deftly conveyed. The scene of the Christmas eve dinner is particularly fascinating for it captured the constrictions that Diana felt living among her husband’s family. The toxic power of a simple gaze and the implications that can have on the person at the receiving end of it makes this scene come alive. The haunting music, the close up shot of Diana struggling to pull off the pearl necklace that her husband had given her and his mistress which she is aware of, and the unblinking gaze of Prince Charles and the Queen- all come together to make the audience become a part of Diana’s consciousness. In that moment we are one with Diana, struggling to break out of the noose around our neck. When the necklace finally come apart and the pearls cascade into the soup, Diana takes mouthful of soup along with the pearls while we can hear and share her pain of trying to break the pearls with her teeth.
Among all these conflicting and horrific incidents that Diana is part of, she does have few fleeting moments of respite. Her conversations with the dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and chef Darren are spaces of sympathy and understanding. Darren has a fixed purpose in his head, that the Princess of Wales will want to eat something he has made, and he understands the pressure of belonging to a royal family, while Maggie is her ally, constant voice of motivation to go through the day and something more. But the scenes between Diana and her two kids are especially tender. Her children are concerned about their mother and a constant support even when they do not fully understand what troubles their mother. And by the end of the film it is her children that gave her the strength to find purpose for herself. An alternate hopeful ending that Pablo Larrain hoped the princess could have had.
The strength of the film lies in its cinematography and camera while the screenplay is probably the weakest link in the film. In some cases, it seems the script infantilise the audience, with over used metaphors of birds with clipped wings and pheasants made beautiful only to be slaughtered, which makes the complete experience of the film feel jarring at times. But psychological tension has always been Larrain strength. From Jackie, to Ema and his recent film Spencer, Larrain has mastered the art of expressing the inner turmoil of his female characters on screen. Kristen Stewart seemed like she was meant to play Diana and she owned the character with strength, vulnerability and passion.
There are a lot of scenes of food and dinner parties throughout Spencer. At the end of the film, Diana finds freedom in ordering buckets of KFC and eating out in the open with her children. Even in Jackie (2016), Larrain had subtly used smoking and alcoholism as a way to showcase the pain Jacqueline Kennedy was feeling right after her husband was assassinated. The recurring use of food and drink as a medium to convey psychological distress is interesting since, like pain, there is a shared connection between the audience and the characters on screen on how something might taste or what can be the after effects of drinking on our body and mind.
Psychological struggles of body dysmorphia and eating disorders are some highly concerning problems that afflicts our society today. With obesity on the rise and social media putting up unreal body standards the present generation has closely witnessed the difficulty of fitting in with society. Even though Princess Diana lived in a time when technology was not as advanced as it is now, the concerns of getting herself weighed and metaphorical feeling of being put under the microscope and dissected are some of the anxieties that are contemporary to the present age. Even though one does find respite by the end of the film, yet there is a lingering feeling of being put in a cage and a sense of uneasiness that one carries with herself and that makes this film a triumph as a horror rather than a fairy tale of happily ever after as was the case for Princess Diana herself.