REVIEW Essay

Three Fictitious Days in the Life

On the “Spencer” film

By Elena Vassilieva

“C’est un conte vrai.” “Non, c’est un vrai conte.” “Vous êtes dans le vrai.” Image* and words by Elena Vassilieva.

The closest movie theatre where you could watch Spencer, a new cinematic opus about Princess Diana, was on Martha’s Vineyard. So on Sunday, the 14th of November, despite my utter aversion to any kind of biopics, I decided to head to the MV Film Society in Vineyard Haven and give it a shot. Who knows, the film might be good enough and worthy of my time, I thought. After all, Kristen Stewart said she was able to grasp Diana’s spirit, which should put both women in a favourable position, or so it seemed after reading an interview with the actress in the LA Times earlier this autumn.

Whilst on the boat, I couldn’t help but reminisce my frequent trips to Edgartown, to the Charlotte Inn, in the fall of 2020. The unique place I got so curious about from reading up in the island’s newspapers on the owners of the hotel, Gery and Paula Conover. The couple, almost religiously devoted to the Charlotte Inn, their chef-d’oeuvre and baby-like project for decades, had been an inspiration for a light-hearted movie, A Godwink Christmas, themselves. Little did I know whilst relishing the authenticity of the Edwardian style furnishings at the Charlotte Inn that Princess Diana was once a guest on the premises and their youngest son, Tim, was assisting the Princess with her daytime activities on the island while she was visiting her good friends, the Brazilian ambassador and his wife, Paulo-Tarso and Lucia Flecha de Lima, in the summer of 1994. Neither Gery and Paula Conover nor Tim had mentioned that fact to me, not even once. Had they done so, it would have been very much out of their characters of true New Englanders, reserved, of quiet disposition, yet, kind, friendly, and hard-working. I found out about the Princess Diana’s visit to the hotel’s restaurant from the book about the Charlotte Inn, but there was just one sentence stating the fact.

Cut off from the world and travelling in 2020, having cancelled all trips, including to England and Australia, I seemed to think the island nearby was a blessing-like. The hotel has staff from all over the globe: the chef at their well-liked restaurant comes from France, the maids are from Eastern Europe, I even met Kevin, a Melburnian, there who looks after the Inn’s antique furniture. After learning about Princess Diana’s vacation on the island, I wondered whether she was happy there? I didn’t dare to ask the Conovers about it, because I knew they would say nothing about their acquaintance with the Princess. But I found one public account going back to August of 2017 when Mr Conover was asked by the local NPR station to share his reminiscences of Princess Diana. Reluctantly, he kindly agreed to be interviewed by Marilyn Schairer. (The radio station wasn’t as lucky with their son, Tim, I’m afraid.) Gery Conover didn’t say much, just how memorable that encounter was when he was giving an excursion around the island to the Princess on his 1923 classic yacht. “It was just a nice experience chatting with her. […] [She was] just really nice in every way. Just very natural, and not at all pretentious. I guess the most significant thing is that she told Tim she had never had such a vacation, where the paparazzi were not always there, and wanted to do a little kind of a thank you party for him at the Inn, which was also very nice.” I did eventually ask the Conovers about their perception of A Godwink Christmas that was based on their personal story. They both were disappointed that some facts were misrepresented in order to satisfy the moviegoer and to justify the commercial interests of the production. For instance, nearly the entire film was shot in Canada, not Martha’s Vineyard, and Gery and Paula met on the island in the summer, not around Christmas, as it was stated in the film.

The moment I had disembarked from the boat that chilly November afternoon, I wondered whether the director, Pablo Larraín, and the script writer, Steven Knight, had done justice to Princess Diana and had sheltered her private persona in the film, given how much she suffered from the round-the-clock paparazzi and media surveillance throughout her life? Or, rather, had Larraín and Knight twisted or exaggerated the facts to the advantage of the conceptual side and the commercial success of the picture? Had they put pressure on the viewer about the complexities of her public and private life? And had Kristen Stewart, an American actress, who had blindly and audaciously, without even reading the script first, agreed to play the role of the Princess, had done a good acting job indeed, as she herself and Larraín believed she did, according to their interviews?

After the film, on my way back from the island, I had leafed through every scene one more time and had come to the conclusion that, sadly, once again Princess Diana fell victim to the professional people’s unscrupulous and brazenly arbitrary interpretation of her life and highly inaccurate depiction of her personality. Right after the first scene, I found myself repelled by the character Larraín, Knight, and Stewart created: a confused, frustrated, and upset woman who gets lost while driving, she swears and moments later enters a sort of cantina and asks for help. She looks depressingly disoriented and distressed. And the character remains in this state of self-destructive alienation and horrid Selbstentfremdung throughout the film. A striking contrast to this is the scene with the military men bringing none other than Christmas food provisions for the Queen’s family to her Sandringham House. The Queen’s character here is also far removed from reality: a woman, who is very conscious of her good looks and her social standing, basks in this glory of hers and with scorn and superiority of a bourgeois dame (!) looks down on Diana, who happens to compliment her dress rather than her speech. Now, think of the real Queen: would she ever be like this? I think not. She may seem reserved and deceptively aloof occasionally, but never self-important, haughty or snobbish like a bourgeois who only yesterday was promoted to a higher social rank and was still thoroughly enjoying this happening. On the contrary, she would probably be calmly compassionate, considerate, and very realistic, at worst, she would say to Diana, as she once did, “But what can I do? Charles is hopeless.” The romantic Diana perceived it at the time as a very tepid compassion, by the way, but that’s the Queen, who would doubtless prefer the bitter truth to the sweet lie, no matter what. Why would she give false hope to Diana, anyway?

The other characters from the Queen’s company, except for Prince Charles and the children, are just secondary and props-like, they have no significance in the film, whatsoever, and Diana barely interacts with them. For all that the intensity of Diana’s interaction with the servants and ordinary people is really striking. From the very beginning, she startles them with her unrestricted willingness to share her unhappiness and frustration. Most of them act well, and Major Alistair Gregory, played by Timothy Spall with ease and aptness, is perhaps the most sympathetic and interesting character in the movie. But even his company didn’t seem to have inspired Kristen Stewart with a vision of freedom from Diana’s persona. Had she freed herself from a burden of Diana’s personality, she might have done a much better job. The figure of Princess Diana may thus have prevented her from developing a deeper and more persuasive portrayal by imposing constraints on her acting. And the further into the movie, the farther the character is moving away from the real Diana. You see here a narcissistic, self-obsessed, cold, and repulsive woman who isn’t even that interested in her own children, let alone anyone else around her. Is that supposed to be the Princess Diana, who had “smothered [her sons] in love” (Prince William), who had great admiration and respect for the Queen, who adored Prince Philip and Princess Anne, let alone all the strangers she had inspired and embraced through her charities? Also, the stark Marxian social stratification in the film with the characters divided into two categories, quasi-Machiavellian villains and their prey, is too simplistic a view. The real Diana, smart and observant, grew up at the Park House, which is on the premises of the Sandringham Estate. By no means was she an outsider or a stranger to the Royal Family, and she knew very well from the very beginning all the peripeteias of her future life as a Royal member. It’s preposterous therefore, as the film quite explicitly does, to blame the Establishment for Diana’s eventual unhappiness. They didn’t insist that Diana had a proper protection after her divorce, and this is the only thing the Establishment could have been scorned for.   

It’s largely because of the Freudian construction of the main character that one is reluctant to draw any serious parallels between the movie character and the real and historical figure of Diana. Most Freudian constructs are destined to fail miserably, and they are known for their limits and dangers because Freud predominantly considered only two factors for his analysis of personality: childhood of a person and her sexual propensity. Spencer is flooded with so many obvious psychoanalytical objects that it’s hard to miss the coerciveness of their symbolism for the viewer. There are Chanel suits and bags, Porsche, pearls, a book about Anne Boleyn, a wire fence, and even a plier (at none other place than inside the antique drawer in one of the bedrooms at the Queen’s Sandringham House!), and what not. Overall, too much, just too much for one movie. On top of this, Kristen Stewart played rather unconvincingly, in my view, right from the start. In the scene at the cantina, she appeared mimicking Diana’s manners and her discoursive style too hard, looking rather awkward and helpless in the role. Clad in Chanel and despite her own attractive frame, Ms Stewart comes across as rough, irascible, and utterly unrefined throughout the film, which Princess Diana had never managed to be. Not even in the darkest moments of her life, when she was overwhelmed by the pressures of being constantly in the public eye. Although the real Diana struggled to hide her emotions, nonetheless, she had never been the way she was portrayed in the film, not in public, anyway, and I doubt very much, in private either, definitely not a conspicuously selfish character, like the one in the movie, she was. Had I accidentally seen a fragment from Spencer without prior knowledge that the main personage was supposed to be Diana, I would have never guessed that this laborious portrayal was that of her very persona.

Some would argue that if it’s a fictional account of the Princess, then it’s futile and senseless to even try to compare the real Princess to the played one, let alone to attempt to contest the intentions of the whole movie project. But I still strongly disagree with such a take on this. Yes, it’s a piece of fiction, indeed, but it’s based on the life story of the real person, the movie character has the name of that person, and not by coincidence. It’s also true that the person happened to be a public, historical figure, “a world icon,” as the director said himself. But nevertheless shouldn’t there be deployed at least minimal ethical filters and moral limitations as to what extent it is permissible to select the facts from this person’s biography and interpret them loosely, let alone misinterpret them, so that the viewer like myself isn’t left in total bewilderment and disbelief? To what extent the factual ground may be tackled and reinvented as the creators please in order to support the film’s main idea? In Spencer it is all about the social awareness of mental health, seemingly, if not this, what else, then? But it’s done at the cost of the one who isn’t here anymore to defend herself, and, clearly, the real Diana was no more mentally unstable than anyone of us who is in the midst of personal disillusionment and disappointment at how certain cultural things in our society function and how easily they may drive one to eating disorders, loneliness, and isolation. As for Diana, it got to the point in her life that she didn’t know whom she could turn to and trust anymore. Way too many pretended to be her friends, breaking the rules of basic civility in the end, when it comes to taking advantage of this “friendship” and capitalising shamelessly on it. But given the circumstances, such as the perpetual media’s attention, paparazzi’s hunting, and betrayal by many people, the trustful Diana had to deal with, it’s quite astonishing that she showed so much strength and grace and appeared to maintain more sanity than most of those who had been put under the similar pressures.

Oddly, instead of stressing this fact, the Spencer biopic highlights her eating disorder, which was the thing of the past for her, anyway, when she had disclosed it to the public, and yet, Larraín cynically dares to make a statement about the Princess Diana’s mental health in the film and his interviews. Besides, it’s not as if Diana lived centuries ago that no one remembers anymore what she was like in real life, and therefore we need another (alas, quite unscrupulous and bigoted!) opinion on her very private terrain, her soul. Diana had impeccable manners and a natural tact, but at times she could indeed spill the beans and let the cat out of the bag in such an unexpected way that one would be baffled for a long, long time, asking oneself why she would do something like this? But then, one would realise that she was young, inexperienced, sincere, and perhaps motivated by the desire to be heard, but one would never think she was self-indulgently wicked, narcissistic or mentally ill, as the biopic chooses to portray her. Very emotional – yes, but self-centred and mentally unhealthy? – Give me a break, Mr Larraín and Mr Knight!

Even during that infamous BBC interview with the disgraceful Martin Bashir when she might/must have been pressured somehow psychologically, she didn’t utter anything that would be offensive to the others. That’s my pure speculation, of course, as for the psychological pressuring, but it’s not impossible, the way Bashir tricked her into the interview, he could well have arranged that too, so that the Princess would feel very uninhibited to say whatever he pleased to hear from her; I’m not accusing him, as there is no proof, I’m just saying he had been capable of it, given the recently surfaced facts about how the interview was organised and obtained by him; however, any psychological pressure is very hard to proof. But the surprising smoothness of Princess Diana’s discourse during the interview despite the harshness of the discussed topics makes one want to know whether she hadn’t been indeed pressured, as she shared very private things about herself, which, normally, she would have never done, not in public. However, she told the truth, critiquing herself in the environment she was, not the environment itself, all of which, alas, backfired when her statements were taken out of context, then greedily expropriated and appropriated, and consequently used as a trump card by professionals in the journalism, biography, and cinema business.

Yes, she had showed her resentment, but you could still feel the love, care, and appreciation she had for Prince Charles, for instance. I found nothing of the sort in the movie. The Larraín’s Diana is a fictional character that has little to do with the real Princess Diana, despite the director’s disingenuous claims that he isn’t “chasing controversy,” he is “just trying to chase something that feels real,” in his own words. Then he continues in his interview with “The Independent”: “I think the movie does a proper depiction of Diana’s internal distress. And that’s what I care about. An eating disorder is never just an eating disorder. It’s a consequence of a mental health problem.” – Qui vous a constitué juge, Mr Larraín? The film focuses on the eating disorder, which was candidly acknowledged by the Princess herself, but Larraín forgets that she also said that she had successfully fought it. It’s unfair that those who might not know much about her (the younger viewers, for example) may believe that she was like that in real life. To me, it’s an unforgivable distortion of the facts when a public figure gets treatment like this in a creative piece. What a shame that the Spencer creators are no better than the paparazzi who stalked the Princess to the death.

“Princess Diana was like a Greek tragic character,” Pablo Larraín commented in that same interview in “The Independent,” priding himself on having done the deed. Is it why he decided to make a biopic rather than simply a film about an unknown princess? Had he done the latter, he wouldn’t have disclosed his poor ethical skills to his audience, of course. Diana endeared herself even more to people by disclosing her malady back then, making it clear that one has nothing to be ashamed of if one happens to be overcome by something like this, one just has to fight it instead of struggling in silence. Ethically, that differs a great deal from what the creators of Spencer did. It was her life and she had every right to make public whatever she thought would help her and the others. But do the movie creators have such right, especially for such a dubious portrayal of the Princess? I also wonder whether we are witnessing in the film not so much the awareness of mental health as that of potential commercial success? In that regard, Princess Diana is, no doubt, a hot ticket for such endeavours. If so, Larraín certainly wouldn’t be the first or the last one to capitalise on this, it’s a cultural machine of propagating certain social values and at the same time taking advantage of others.

The persistent commercialisation of Princess Diana’s persona or any other similar public figure who generates profit and has influence isn’t new, and it’s sad that people in cinema seem not to shy away from such an exploitative practice. Tragic is certainly not Diana, she transcended the tragic death by leaving her love for people and by becoming a beloved historical figure, tragic are the ethics and morals of the contemporary popular and celebrity culture and hence our society in general. Mentally unstable is not Diana, either, it’s our culture and society where utter desperation for celebrity status, fame, and profit, gained dishonestly at the cost of other people’s privacy and well-being, determine the “health” of its members. Alas, Pablo Larraín and Steven Knight have contributed to this with their own work ethic and moral standards, which all fall short of those of the Princess Diana. “It makes you feel dirty,” my librarian friend said when we had discussed the movie, and it certainly does.

And the last thing, my dear moviegoer, if you would like to see a film about a princess, you shall watch William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) again and again, and, unlike Spencer (2021), it will not bring you into a state of mental discomfort, on the contrary, it will do good to you and those around you.

*Image: photographed are the books, “Princess” by © Robert Lacey, © NYTimes Books, 1982 and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, © Random House, 1944.

(Written on Sunday, November 22, 2021 in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

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