“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. 

The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!