Flesh Amongst Royals

Spencer (2021)


At first, there is nothing but the quiet of a field at dawn. The sprawling, twisted arms of naked trees loom above the damp hue of the grass below, so green it is nearly blue. Then, in the distance, a row of armored trucks interrupt the scene’s tranquil beauty. They trudge along the road, half-hidden by treeline. They’re silent as they push forward—the field is the space between us and them. But the unsubtle view of machinery obliterates the pastoral. The utter humanness makes a fool of any prior beauty.

The first creature we get close to in Spencer is a carcass, a pheasant careened on its side in the middle of the road. Throughout the film, the pheasant will return in different forms: dead and alive, then dead again. But the bird, in all its states, remains inconsequential—a breathing thing taken for granted, made into meal and sport for hunting dogs and their masters, a throwaway motif that could stand in for any number of things. A prisoner felled from a bullet in the trees. Or freedom, in how it stalks along the grounds of the royals’ holiday estate so lawlessly. Or plainly, the pheasant is a noun, an image, something in the way. And it is there, in that silent state of neglect, that Diana Spencer appears to us. Her face, obscured by a pair of Gucci sunglasses, is immaculate and cold. She is late to Christmas with her in-laws. Consequently, she is also late to her duties as standing flesh amongst royals, a pawn of tradition. She stops at a cozy roadside diner, seeking direction. She is lost, and for the next hour and a half, will remain this way—trapped within the gaze of others with no way out. Where the fuck am I? she asks herself. But the road before her remains tightlipped. 


Spencer, the film, is all wondrous spectacle. Each frame holds lavishness at the forefront. Even nature is made to look regal, artificially posed so that as humans walk through lawns or under branches, everything appears magazine-ready—meticulously curated, ethereal, sublime. This is to say, not even the dirt feels out of place. In the kitchen below the estate where food is prepped by dozens of hands, fat lobsters rest on ice, alongside unbruised fruit so rich in color as to appear plastic, inedible. Such is Christmas with the royals in the eyes of Spencer—try as she might, she can’t hold their food in her mouth, can’t stomach the deranged glimmers of wealth and tradition she is expected to digest, to wear, to learn the unspoken language of. She leans over the toilet to find reprieve that never comes. How does a woman become more than ornament? She swallows pearls, unstitches window blinds with wire cutters, and pulls clothing from a scarecrow to display in her room. She misbehaves—missing lunch, then dinner. She bristles at her maid for being the wrong maid. She exits the grounds at night, determined to find her way home.

For all the money spent on the appearance of holiday cheer, there is an air of chaos afoot that threatens to undermine it, a spectral doom that mists over the proceedings so subtly, it is like wandering through a ghost without seeing it; a chill setting into bone is the only proof of it having been there. At its core, Spencer is a film about belonging—or more aptly, about one’s failure to belong. If the plot of Spencer could be condensed to one line, it would be this: a woman floats through the purgatory of a broken marriage, then refuses to eat. Between the royal family’s visible disdain for Spencer’s presence, and Spencer’s disgust at having to squirm her way into sequins for the show of it, the film waltzes through a tension so thick, it could flatten a skull. 

In the taking of a family photo, Spencer is doomed to the corner of the frame, stranded from a husband that doesn’t love her and a mother-in-law that regards her not with affection but something more inscrutable. Pity? Sorrow? Regardless, Spencer wanders through hallways like she expects the Minotaur to be waiting around the corner to make feast of her. When she dances alone in the luxurious gowns set aside for different hours of the day, it’s hard to reconcile the joy that wipes across her face with the smallness of her life amidst those adorned walls. Is it happiness or mania that compels her to run, to skip, to storm? Like the woman in the yellow wallpaper, Spencer rages against her context, but fails to make a dent. Try as she might, she cannot rebel against a wealth—a lineage—so gargantuan.

There has to be two of you, Prince Charles seethes at her through clenched teeth. One can see it in the foggy glaze in her shifting eyes, the threadbare line between public and private, and the impossible dance made to bridge them, to bear the weight of them, and how stepping into one self requires the brief death of the other. Ultimately, it’s in Kristen Stewart’s restless performance that this line is made visible. With a voice that barely crawls beyond a whisper, even in argument, Stewart’s Spencer is all nerve, a careful study in withering. Again and again, she finds herself surrounded by frames: mirrors and paintings which demand her to either look at herself or into an imagined somewhere else.  


I’ve watched Spencer twice since its release. The first time was in a one-screen theatre in Buffalo so large, it felt like being swallowed. The theatre, established in the 1920s, was, per the website, meant to “lift the ‘common man’ out of his daily routine and place him in a setting so grandiose, so richly detailed, that he should think it the most natural thing in the world to watch his dreams come to life on the silver screen.” This mission statement flies in the face of a film like Spencer, even as it poses important questions about viewership, about the film screen’s capacity to infiltrate—and reflect—an audience’s capitalist fantasies. For how does the ‘common man’ relate to Spencer’s plights as they’re shown to us? I imagine that we’re meant to hold the same contempt for shiny things that Spencer does as we watch her glower over pea soup or bleed out upon a gleaming, cream-colored dress. Above our heads in the theatre, a dome is carved into the ceiling and painted with murals inspired by classical mythology. The parallel is nearly too obvious to remark upon. For two hours, I felt imprisoned by excess on all sides, from the theatre’s historical glory to Spencer’s barbed frolicking through the richly detailed corridors of the Queen’s Sandringham estate. Trudging back to my apartment in the cold, it was hard not to feel as if I had somehow fallen from grace. 

The second time I watched Spencer, I was in the company of my mother, who has deep-rooted feelings about Spencer as a person despite never having met nor been in the same room as her. We watched the film together in the living room of the house that I grew up in, perhaps 1/18th the size of Sandringham. Through the screening, my father vacuumed the bedrooms, adding a cacophonic thrum to the film’s already bleak soundscapes, courtesy of Jonny Greenwood. At the end of the film, my mother turned to me and remarked that it felt unfair to the memory of Spencer that a film should show her in such a despairing light. Isn’t it disrespectful to take a person’s real life and reduce it down to a few bad days?

Such a question could be posed by most biopics—where does a person’s real-life end and their cultural residue begin? Do we participate in some cruel form of necromancy every time we build set pieces and costumes to mirror the past, and then ask actors to fill in the blanks we’ve decided are there? In a sense, the film’s Prince Charles is right: there are always two versions—the one impossible for us to know as viewers, and the one we create in a person’s place to pretend we might know them, their essence. Perhaps it is our insatiable hunger for mythologies that drives us to construct their doubles. Conversely, this is also what compels us to rip them apart. In the theatre of celebrity spectacle, the desire to claim one’s role in the drama overrides the need to consider ethics.  

But ultimately, I think Spencer asks us to consider the person at its center to be a construction of all the information we’re privy to as a hungry public. If our imaginations created a version of Spencer we feel we know somehow, then the version we get onscreen must also be imaginary. The casting of Stewart seems to validate this notion. Here, the film does not raise the dead so much as ask us why we’d want it to. Stewart’s presence is great not because she evaporates behind Spencer’s being, but because she wears the construction of Spencer like a second skin, one we can see clearly. Though we watch Stewart trying to wrestle her way into Spencer, she fails to completely disappear. This is not a critique. Spencer’s legacy—and the mythology born out of it—is perhaps too vast for one person to inhabit. And it is here, in this failure, that the film, and Stewart’s performance, succeeds.