It is truly a shame that, at least in my American educational experience, we don’t learn much about Diana Spencer, the former princess of Wales, outside of her tragic passing. She was more than just a martyr for unearthing the strict scrutiny of the British Royal Family or the unyielding hounding of paparazzi. She was an activist, a loving mother, a fashion icon and a free spirit. Long before her death there was another death playing out behind the scenes. The death of her individuality; her passion; her identity. It’s a sobering tale that shouldn’t be forgotten, as the issues Diana faced long ago are still prevalent in the monarchy today, evident by the departure of Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan from the royal family’s operations. These issues are presented in a haunting, poetic take on a biopic in one of the best films of 2021, Spencer.
Set in the holiday season of 1991, Spencer follows Princess Diana’s induced fever dream of a Christmas at the Queen’s estate. Burdened by the royal family’s image expectations and her husband’s affair, Diana does her best to remain strong for her two sons and fight to retain her own individuality. Director Pablo Larrain (Jackie) intelligently keeps the focus of the film far away from the tragedy that would unfold years later, instead focusing on the personal tragedies that were already unfolding behind the scenes. Opting to focus on this specific period in Diana’s life rather than the entire series of events that may have led her here keeps the film concise with little fluff or required exposition. In the average director’s hands this would play out more or less like a by-the-numbers biopic, but Larrain truly makes the film one of a kind by painting it almost like a horror film. There’s an impending darkness and sorrow that hangs over the film with a ghostly connection to past misdeeds inside the royal family. Diana is even haunted by visions of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was executed after faulty claims of adultery. The deck was always stacked against Diana from the beginning and the film does a fantastic job that her struggles are not just happenstance but a perpetuation of wrongdoings that have continued by those in power for centuries.
The film is, obviously, about Diana and required a powerhouse of a performance to not only do the deceased princess justice, but humanize her in a way that could make her more than just a powerful figurehead, but an individual. Enter Kristen Stewart, a casting decision that came as a shock to those who haven’t watched many movies. Like her once-costar Robert Pattinson, the enormous storm cloud that is the Twilight series has continued to hang over her head despite cutting her teeth in a variety of genres and films. While public perception has only recently swayed for Pattinson after roles in Good Time and The Lighthouse, Stewart has not been as well received in the public eye. Granted, she hadn’t really starred in many hits (as she will tell you herself), but I can’t help but feel it may also unfairly stem from her outspokenness on her own identity that has made audiences not as accepting as they should be. Luckily, her performance in Spencer is one of those rare “eat your own words” performances that absolutely embodies the entire film. In her no doubt cathartic performance, Stewart is able to capture the free spirit energy of Diana that had been told to remain quiet for years. The weight inflicted by an emotional isolation rings heavily in her performance, showing both frailty and strength in a mixture of powerful displays of range. Without explicitly stating the pain that causes Diana so much grief, Stewart is able to give all the exposition we need in her hesitant mannerisms, her rebellion towards formality and her teetering on the edge of the willingness to go on. Yet, despite all of this anguish, she never loses sight of the playful spirit Diana should forever be remembered for. Nothing short of transformative, this is by and far the most complex and impressive role Stewart has faced to date, and a poignant reminder that an actor cannot be defined by a single performance.
The landscape that allowed Stewart to thrive in such a way is due in part to the masterful presentation of the haunting grounds of the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Often enveloped by looming clouds and crawling fog, the film’s ghost story aesthetic is so prevalent in such a unique way. We are constantly reminded that “they” can hear everything on these grounds, amplifying the anxiety of being stuck in a place where privacy and sacredness is threatened. Coupled by a powerfully melancholic score from lead Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, you’d half expect a jump scare or two with all of this foreboding atmosphere. Yet it’s the perfect presentation for a story dealing with the death of individualism. The film isn’t all as drab as it may sound, as the elegant set design captures the regality of the royal family in a way that’s both stunning and oppressive. It takes a truly impressive team to make the joyous glow of Christmas as something to be intimidated by in a non ham-fisted way, but the films pulls it off. Finally, the wardrobes are out-of-this-world stunning, capturing Diana’s iconic style while also using it as a form of rebellion. Every aspect of the film’s stylistic flare is inarguably impressive, creating something that feels so grounded in reality yet possesses the whimsicality of a fairy tale. Why we can’t get more biopics like this is truly puzzling, but it may just speak to the lack of originality in the world of film today.
The irony about this film about a dead woman is that she already feels dead in these moments that she was alive. Like a ghost drifting through memories of the past, Diana is seemingly perpetually burdened by everything that has and will happen. The film speaks to the insanity of the obsession of image, promising that shining pearls and the finest dresses will do little to ease what ales you. In the end its never worth the sacrifice of individual expression, as your resilience will be what is remembered when the colors fade away. It’s a depressing tale, especially knowing what ultimately happens. Yet, the film still finds a way to remain hopeful on the road to destruction. It’s a little victory in the grand scheme of it all, yet its magnitude feels global. Rescuing that lost spirit before it disappears forever. It’s comforting that, in these small moments, Diana found a way to win.
While this mixture of traditional biopic and metaphorical storytelling may not be to everyones’ liking, Spencer nonetheless is a captivating, often funny, often depressing story of a livewire cut too soon. Beautiful to look at and impressively performed, Larrain was able to capture something truly special here. Its a film built for award season whose soul existence isn’t to win awards. As Martin Scorsese once said: “Mama mia! That’s-a cinema, baby!”.
Now all we need is a redemption film for Taylor Lautner and the Twilight curse will be lifted.
As it turns out, there’s actually a fairly well-known cocktail known as the Lady Diana out in the world. Yet, because of the way Spencer honors Diana’s legacy, I thought it would be fitting if we were to highlight Princess Diana’s favorite cocktail, the peach Bellini. Diana wasn’t particularly known to be much of a drinker, maybe having a glass of a dry white wine on special occasions. Yet there have been many reports that she enjoyed the chilled blend of fruit and prosecco from time to time. Rumor has it that this is the exact drink she chose when she dressed up as a man to visit a gay bar with Freddie Mercury. Wild stuff.
The Peach Bellini is an IBA recognized classic that’s been around since the 30s, made with a blend of peaches, water and a sweetener like simple syrup or . Some people ditch the puree entirely for peach schnapps, but come on. A royal drink calls for the royal treatment! This peach puree also includes raspberries, really sweetening the cocktail up. Super easy to make and drink, why not have this be the reason you’re throwing up in the bathroom at your family’s Christmas party, rather than the sheer volatile weight inflicted by their unquenchable expectations!
- 1 peach, peeled and diced
- 8 raspberries
- 1/2 cup water
- Chilled Prosecco
- In a blender, combine your fruit and water and blend until smooth. Double strain the puree into a side glass. (NOTE: This makes about 4 servings).
- Add 1.5oz of the puree to to a champagne flute or wine glass.
- Top with prosecco.
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