Review by Katie McKenna
When I was a kid, my favourite book was a copy of Aesop’s Fables. As my father would read me stories about lions, grasshoppers and tortoises, I would sit transfixed. These mini character studies showed us cautionary tales where people were punished for their mistakes. Then at the bottom of each story was a lesson – usually something very simple, but a lesson nonetheless. The message of each story was clear: these people needed to be punished in order to become a better person. As I grew up, I began to see that this was not the case. Most of the time, any personal hardship we experience is random and the pain caused by it makes the search for meaning in it seem stupid. Opening with the quote “A fable from a true tragedy”, Pablo Larraín’s newest film Spencer (2021) shows us what living in a fable is actually like, struggling through devastation without the pleasure of a lesson at the end.
Set during the Christmas Holidays, Spencer follows Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) as she spends three days with the Royal Family and attempts to find a meaning behind the suffering she’s experienced at both the hands of the Crown and the public.
When talking about Diana people rarely talk about her as a person. Instead, she’s become a sob story: a young girl who married a selfish, powerful man, was put under a media microscope, and died tragically too young. Her icon status has taken away her humanity. However, Spencer doesn’t care about Diana’s story – in fact, most of the script is fiction. Larraín isn’t interested in telling us what Diana did, he wants to show us who she was. Led by a career-best performance from Stewart, Spencer is a masterclass in character studies.
Stewart plays the princess more like an anti-hero akin to Don Draper or Fleabag than the martyr we usually see. By turning an icon back into a real person, her performance brings an intense feeling of humanity to the film. Through small moments of both kindness and cruelty between Diana and Charles (Jack Farthing), we are shown a whole new side of their relationship. Rather than inciting the outrage we usually feel when told their “love story”, Larraín shows us a failing marriage caused by two flawed people, not one big bad guy. Instead of pitying her, we empathise with Diana.
The plot of this film can be slow at times. The film is more interested in making us feel something rather than telling us a story. However, those expecting a portrayal similar to the Crown will be disappointed. This isn’t another film showing us things that happened to the Windsors. Spencer doesn’t care about the Royal Family, about what they did in response to Diana’s actions or how they felt about them. This attitude sets the film free. It allows it to surpass its predecessors. By avoiding the usual regurgitation of Royal Drama that we already know, Larraín is able to focus entirely on the part of the film that allows us to connect to it, its emotions.When I go back and read my old book of Aesop’s Fables, the messages seem cheap and hollow. Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race: sometimes you lose. Without a greater meaning it’s hard to accept life’s tragedies, but most tragedies don’t have one. Spencer shows us a way to approach the seemingly meaningless cruelty that everyone experiences. Like Diana, we do not know if things will be ‘okay’ for us in the end. The dramatic irony of Diana’s fate adds an extra layer of tragedy to the film, but we take happiness when it comes to us. While her end destination is tragic, Spencer is not about that, it is about how Diana lived and how the beautiful moments during tragic times are still beautiful, so we should enjoy them.