“Spencer” Film: Royally Bad

Not having really enjoyed other films by Pablo Larraín, and despite mixed reviews, I still saw the latest work by the Chilean filmmaker, “Spencer.” I will freely confess that one of my hobbies is royal watching, and I hugely admired Princess Diana. My initial hesitation was about Kristen Stewart playing the role of the beloved icon, but the greater faults lay with other things. It is truly a horrid work, even for die-hard (Di-hard?) fans.

Music can, in a very subtle way, really enhance or detract from a film, contribute to the atmosphere or character. In this case, it is simply grating. The film begins with classical music as Diana is driving to Sandringham House, and it morphs into discordant string music and then jazz that goes on interminably, presumably to represent the madness in her head. Anytime Diana has an “episode” with bulimia, we get the music, like a bad migraine before one vomits.

The tone of the film is grim. It could have worked, given that the subject matter is not jovial: this is Diana’s last Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham before the divorce, and she is on the verge of a mental breakdown. However, Larraín hits the viewer over the head with this, as if to constantly say “This Is a Serious Film.” (I have a similar feeling about “The Crown”—while definitely more enjoyable than “Spencer,” it constantly tries to remind viewers that it is Serious with a capital S.) Larraín makes terrible directorial choices, such as too many extreme close-ups, blurring out the other characters but keeping only Diana in focus, directing Kristen Stewart in a very one-dimensional way where she is only portrayed as unhappy, and showing only the scenes where Diana is suffering (with only a couple of exceptions).

And that brings me to the next problem: the script is terrible. Another woman from my social group with whom I went to see the movie said it was one of the worst scripts she has ever heard. The dialogue is simplistic and silly, rehashes what we already know or expect happened during Diana’s unhappy times. We know she was bulimic; do we have to see every instance of her vomiting, the gooey strings of gastric fluids dripping out of her mouth into the toilet? Do we have to hear her argue over and over about the order of dresses she is expected to wear during the day?

Scenes with other members of the royal family are kept to a minimum or eliminated; we don’t see how others treat her during meals, during the opening of Christmas presents, etc. All we see are Diana’s reactions, and they seem to be in a vacuum, with no clear cause. The overall problem is that the portrayal of Diana is unsympathetic–we wonder why the screenwriter chose to only show her tantrums and tears or her episodes that are leading toward a mental breakdown, therefore creating a portrait of a Diana who was mentally unstable and badly behaved, rather than the victim of an unsympathetic, bullying, gaslighting family and royal system that caused her to be depressed and cope in unhealthy ways. Why screenwriter Steven Knight made the choices he did is simply baffling. He tries to be profound with the symbolism of her father’s jacket, appearances from the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and the visit to her childhood home, Park House, but these fail, because they are not integrated into the script and feel like non-sequiturs that are tacked on. This is not to say that any biopic must be completely realistic or accurate; one good example is “Rocketman,” where the film functions on a metaphor of Elton John dressed as a devil in rehab. It can be a very good thing, aesthetically speaking, when a director and writer take a particular angle on a well-known figure if done well.

Kristen Stewart as the late Diana Spencer/Princess of Wales gives a much better performance than I expected. She physically embodies the character, with her elegance and royal gravitas, and the costume designers chose the appropriate wardrobe for the character. Stewart truly captures the melancholy and internal turmoil of Diana: we believe her as a fragile, broken, and suspicious woman who is so vulnerable and desperate for love. As above, it is unfortunate that the director only chose to show her in these negative states, except for when she is with her children. Even when talking to the staff, Diana has no composure, whereas by all accounts in real life she was always charming and warm with staff and the public, even when depressed. We only see one side of Diana, which was certainly the intention, but it makes for a poor film–Stewart’s talents are wasted.

The art direction and production design are beautiful, as one might expect from a film featuring palaces and stately homes. All the other characters are beautifully clad and the actors believable. Their talents are also wasted in this film, for they could have contributed so much more. 

Fans of Princess Diana would be better off saving their $8/$10/$15 and watching a good documentary about her on YouTube or PeopleTV instead. 

Do Make a Spectacle!

Yesterday, I attended a (masked) symphony Halloween concert where all the musicians dressed in costumes. Some of them were group costumes (such as the double basses who were nuns or the trumpets who were cleverly gender-reversed: four men were Playboy bunnies, and the woman was Hugh Hefner, complete with burgundy robe!) The different conductors wore garb related to the pieces they were conducting (such as many scarves for conducting “The Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salomé), and the audience was also encouraged to dress up as well. 

Each section of instruments took their turn displaying their costumes on stage before settling into their seats, giving the audience a chance to enjoy what they were wearing. The orchestra members played their instruments in the aisles, providing background music. The house lights were bright in the beautiful, historic auditorium where the concert was held.

It made me think–what is it about a grand event like this that is so fulfilling to people?

We human beings need pageantry and spectacle. We need something out of the ordinary, and there is nothing quite like costume to lift us out of our ordinary lives. We need things that are larger than life, not only figuratively but literally, to be in spaces that are not small. We need sound, light, and color to transport us into another world. In other words, we need things that are not human-scaled.

Drama has been around since the early days of humans. So has music. Most of the world’s religious traditions build massive houses of worship, decorated with jewels, gold leaf, stained glass, stone carvings, bright colors, and dress the deities in the finest fabrics. We pay exorbitant sums of money to attend rock concerts in arenas with gigantic screens and light shows, or Broadway musicals with stunning revolving sets. Royalty built edifices that corresponded with their rank: consider a baron’s humble country mansion with an imperial palace.

Even a walk through a Halloween store where they sell all kinds of accoutrements for creating a costume and interesting objects like motorized demons that pop out at you is a delight, a pleasure to see the sheer array of possibilities and imagination. It’s true that Halloween has become grossly commercialized; however, that does not take away the joy of walking through a store where the whole point is to celebrate the fantastical and spectacular.

It is interesting to think that while screens have gotten smaller and smaller and fit on a smart phone, televisions have gotten bigger and bigger: one can have a “home theater” in one’s house with the screen that approaches something in a small movie theater. This only affirms our love of seeing large images. Outside the home, we enjoy going to IMAX movies, because we get a more palpable sense of what it’s like to be on a rocket or seeing dinosaurs at what would have been their approximate size.

After nearly 2 years of living with a pandemic, and being cooped up for most of it, stuck in our own little lives and spaces (even those who live in mansions), there is something so soul-soothing about going into a big space and seeing big images, something that transcends our quotidian world. Here’s to the human phenomenon of the spectacle.