What would happen if nearly everything bad that ever happened in Diana, Princess of Wales’s life—that we know happened, anyway—happened over the three-day period of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day 1991?
Spencer would happen.
Fair warning: this review/opinion piece is laden with spoilers. If you want to watch without my ramblings colouring your opinion, do not read.
Spencer begins with Diana lost. I don’t mean emotionally or spiritually adrift. I mean literally lost, with a map pulled out, wondering aloud where she is, pulling over to a roadside diner to ask the patrons for directions (but of course, they’re all too starstruck that Diana is in the restaurant to help her).
Surely, she’s going somewhere she’s never been? Wrong. She’s going to Sandringham…a place of significance for the royals, but also the place she grew up! It’s all downhill from here, and honestly, brace yourselves because it’s a rapid decline.
There’s no context as to what’s happening. There’s no title screen explaining the relationships at play or even the time period (if you don’t already know the cliff notes of Diana’s life, good luck to you). Much like the glorified perfume ad this movie often looks like, what’s happening at any given moment is a mystery.
There’s also no sympathy to be found…for anybody. Rather than give us the context that Diana is chafing at royal life and her husband’s infidelities, we go in blind, and we’re supposed to root for her regardless. Instead, she shows up late, not to mention lost, after The Queen; ignores repeated attempts to get her to join the family for meals and socialising, often holding them up; bad-mouths the family to the staff and her children; and is contrarian at every step, oftentimes just because.
There’s no reason to root for her that I can find, and this is coming from someone who adored the real-life Diana. She’s contrary for the sake of being contrary; argumentative for the sake of being argumentative; tries to cast herself above the rest of the family, who she disparagingly says are stuck in the past. It’s a disservice to her memory of the bright and vivacious person Diana was to see her like this. I rooted for the real Diana. I didn’t root for Spencer.
The Royal Family are portrayed as they always are: cold and aloof and part of an apparently archaic machine, and aside from Prince Charles and The Queen, nobody else gets a close-up or a line, further lending credence to the fact that this Diana is the only individual who has ever existed in the Royal Family.
I was honestly so bored of Diana that in the larger family scenes, I spent my time trying to figure out who was who in the background. Fergie is instantly recognisable by the flaming red hair, but good luck distinguishing Andrew from Edward and Princesses Anne and Margaret are often interchangeable with their bouffants.
I haven’t even gotten to Anne Boleyn’s ghost. Yes, that’s a sentence I just typed. Because this Diana? She sees Anne Boleyn’s ghost. Anne Boleyn’s ghost encourages her to free herself from a marriage to a man who wants to move on with a new mistress (and to further reinforce this supposed parallel, outside the church on Christmas morning Diana even calls Camilla, who’s there, for some reason, Jane Seymour to William).
Anne Boleyn’s ghost saves her life. That’s not an exaggeration; that’s an actual line. Just as Diana’s about to throw herself down the stairs at a boarded-up Park House (the house she lived in as a child), Anne Boleyn’s ghost appears and convinces her to rip off her pearl necklace instead and free herself.
And then Diana dresses a scarecrow up in that gaudy yellow dress she wears in the trailer, runs into the middle of a pheasant shoot and screams at the royals until they agree to let William and Harry leave with her, and then they just take off.
Oh, and there’s a dresser who may or may not exist; whose relationship to Diana is never clarified (does she only dress her at Christmas? Did she follow from Kensington Palace?); and whose last-minute plot twist caused me to roll my eyes nearly out of my sockets in the theatre. This is the one thing I won’t spoil for you. Much like The Queen in a crowd, it needs to be seen to be believed.
Did Spencer have a point? Not really, no. There’s no allusion to what’s to come (the Andrew Morton book, the separation, the disastrous Panorama interview). There’s no allusion to what’s already happened. This was just one terrible, terrible holiday and a showcase for Kristen Stewart, who doesn’t much look like Diana, nor does she sound like her either, but will likely win an Oscar in a few months for this.
Ultimately, in a media landscape that’s dominated by The Crown and portraying history in a particular way (with the saintly naïve Diana as a lamb served up for sacrifice), I can see this movie becoming a definitive part of the royal pantheon, one that’s always on those lists that read, “If you just finished The Crown and want to watch more, check out these titles!”
To rely on Spencer (or The Crown, but I’ll save that diatribe for when its fifth season premieres) to inform your understanding of who Diana was is ultimately a disservice to her memory. Yes, she was young and naïve when she married into the Royal Family, but she was so much more than the pitiful portrayals of late.
She was charming, vivacious, and a breath of fresh air.
She revolutionised the way royals were seen—holding hands with AIDS patients, taking on unglamorous causes, giving her children the normality of fast food, Disney World and taking the tube.
She walked through a minefield (literally, although you could argue figuratively, too).
She was one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century—one of the most fascinating women of all time.
We rooted for her.
Where’s that Diana’s movie? Why can’t we tell her story?