If I’m being honest, I was incredibly skeptical going into this watch. Not only did I think Kristen Stewart wouldn’t be able to pull of the Princess Diana role, but I always find these kinds of biopics to exist in a weird moral space where I’m not 100% sure if what I’m watching is ethical (using a dead person’s story for profit etc.). So, you can imagine my surprise when Spencer QUICKLY became one of my favorite movies released last year. Not only is Stewart’s performance astonishing—undoubtedly a high point in her career—but the film is one of the best-looking movies of 2021 (I named it as one of the notable snubs in my Best Cinematography Nominees reaction). It starts with an epigraph claiming that what we’re watching is a “Fable from a true tragedy,” meaning this film hopes to convey some type of moral code. This morality lies in how it explores the way gender norms uphold imperialism, and gives a gut-wrenching insight into the human toll needed to maintain the status quo.
This sociopolitical commentary is even present on the formal level. Some scenes are shot using a handheld camera which really captures the almost-frantic nature of Stewart’s unstable, deteriorating mental state as she tries to navigate the impossible standards placed on women in her position. The use of a wide-angle lens is also noteworthy here, with the background slowly blurring as the camera pushes into Stewart’s anxiety-wracked visage, showing we are firmly in her perspective, disconnected from the outside world. This same technique was used in Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels to really ground us in a character’s sensory experience and psycho-emotional landscape. When combined with the discordant music that keeps us on edge before crescendoing into a heavy strings section that really adds to the tragic, doom-heavy atmosphere permeating the film, it’s fair to say this movie was crafted on every level to help portray a woman pushed to the depths of a mental health crisis by the stress of her societal role. While I’m unsure if Stewart managed to deliver a historically-accurate portrayal, there’s an intense emotional-realism here that was clearly prioritized and successfully conveyed.
Throughout the film, Diana is constantly compared or likened to Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by her husband, King Henry VIII. I think the film drew some fascinating parallels between Boleyn’s story and Diana’s, ultimately showing how the monarchy treats women as dispensable for the so-called “good of the people.” We get this in numerous scenes, such as when Diana is instructed to stop being so upset about her husband’s adultery and “just look gorgeous,” or when she’s told by the queen herself that as a woman in the royal family, “all you are is currency,” a kind of figurehead who isn’t allowed to have emotions or depth. Such myth building is necessary to uphold the various colonial projects maintained by the British empire, and all other empires: the so-called flawless queen/royal family—and the system they represent—will help ‘civilize’ the non-Anglo world, as the British would eventually do to the Irish. In one scene, Major Gregory tells Diana that, while colonizing Belfast, all he could think of as he committed war crimes was his “oath to the crown.” This notion of ‘the crown’ as an institution beyond critique is how such projects are ultimately made acceptable to the public, and to the soldiers who carry out these crimes; but it has a costly price, even for those who benefit from such a system. They have to deal with the mental and emotional impacts of being reduced to a non-person, an idea or symbol, but not a human. This is clearly truer for royal women, who often find themselves in tabloids and paparazzi’s crosshairs. Perhaps this is why, at one point, Diana even becomes Boleyn, complete with the sixteenth-century dress, hinting at her ultimate victimization by the patriarchal monarchist system.
Though the film never makes a clear connection between Diana’s bulimia/self-harm and the ruthless treatment she was subjected to, I think it does a great job at giving viewers the dots to connect ourselves, showing how harsh of a psychological impact can come from being forced to suppress your emotions and tolerate constant critique/mistreatment in the name of imperial nationalism. Despite the royals’ various attempts throughout the film to pathologize Diana’s deteriorating mental state, we get the most realistic diagnosis when her friend says “fuck doctors. All you need is love. Love, shocks, laughter,” the things she was so sealed off from as a member of the royal family.
Maybe this is why the film’s ending is so satisfying. As we see Diana rescue her sons from a hunting trip they didn’t even want to go on—but were required to because of ‘tradition’—and watch their car zoom down a wide-open country road, singing and laughing together, we understand that the answer is never to join the system, to take the abuse it offers and turn the other cheek. Rather, we must reject imperialism and monarchy, and instead find true freedom in the quest to avoid such trappings. I think the fact that we know Diana’s ultimate ending wasn’t a happy one reinforces this point even further. While it wasn’t always the most comfortable watch, this film remains one of the most important releases of 2021. Spencer is now on Hulu, stream it while you can!