Spencer’s radical take on the Princess Diana myth
Director Pablo Larraín wanted to analyse an icon that gripped even his mum in ’90s Chile. But what does that have to do with Billie Eilish?
Have we reached Peak Diana?
The drama-industrial complex that is The Crown is currently full steam ahead with filming on series five (due in November 2022), with onset images of Elizabeth Debicki’s iteration of the Princess of Wales already setting queen-of-hearts hearts aflutter. Before she regenerated into a six-foot-three Australian actor, Netflix Di was played by Emma Corrin, who earlier this year won the Golden Globe Best Actress – Television Series Drama for her portrayal of the royal.
And, as if The Crown’s imperial-level ubiquity wasn’t enough Di-flying excitement for streamers, in October Netflix added Diana: The Musical to their war-chest, ahead of the theatrical – and certifiably bonkers-bad – show’s long-delayed curtains-up on Broadway on 2nd November. That’s three days ahead of the opening in the US and UK of Spencer, the new biopic of the princess formerly known as Lady Diana Spencer, who was killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel in 1997.
The film’s director Pablo Larraín, of course, doesn’t believe we’re at – or past – the zenith of global interest in a British aristocratic figure almost a quarter of a century after her death. And to be fair to him, the casting of Kristen Stewart as the titular lead has had legions of Twi-hards shape-shifting into Di-hards ever since the 31-year-old Los Angeleno’s casting was revealed in June 2020.
The Chilean auteur sees Diana as an enduring “pop icon”. For him, she transcends times and tastes, and he draws parallels with the resonance of a contemporary cultural titan like Billie Eilish.
But rather than try to grapple with the huge legacy of Diana, Larraín – who previously gave us Jackie (2016), a devastating portrait of John F. Kennedy’s grieving widow Jackie, with Natalie Portman in the title role – has focused on one weekend in 1991. Working with British screenwriter Steven Knight (creator of Peaky Blinders), his tight focus is on a Christmas gathering at Sandringham, The Queen’s estate in Norfolk.
Diana is hounded by the media, at loggerheads with the rest of the Royal Family, suffering from eating disorders and spiralling psychologically. Only her love for her children William and Harry, and the undying support of a lady-in-waiting and confidante played by Sally Hawkins, are keeping her sane.
As a talismanic reminder of the woman she was before her 1981 marriage to Prince Charles (a ceremony watched by 750 million people in 74 countries), before she was wife of the heir to the British Crown, Diana Spencer’s childhood home, Park House, was a rented property on the Sandringham Estate. In the film (metaphor alert!), it’s a dilapidated, haunting – and, in fact, haunted – wreck.
Overall, the sense of stress and pressure in a gloomy, mist-shrouded royal estate on which the winter sun never seems to shine is brilliantly evoked by the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (who performs an equally powerfully stirring role with his score for the upcoming Jane Campion/Benedict Cumberbatch collaboration The Power of the Dog).
As for Stewart, she does a creditable job playing the impossible princess, nailing the accent, demeanour and head tilt, even as it’s hard to get past the feeling that: “That’s Bella Swan there, dressing up as Princess Diana.” With the then-unknown Emma Corrin, most of us didn’t know her, so believability came more readily.
Equally, watching Spencer, it can be hard to fathom just why we still obsess over Diana. Certainly, in Spencer’s telling, the House of Windsor seems to be entirely populated by heartless, tweedy, none-more-grey gammons. And for sure, the forces besieging Diana were appalling. But in Larraín’s depiction, the Princess of Wales often comes across as a petulant rich girl. So much so that you may well find yourself thinking: if she was my family member, I’d have got her a crappy Christmas present, too.
Is that really how it was? Larraín, after all, gets his caveat in early with an opening title card that reads: “A fable from a true tragedy.”
When he Zooms in from Chile, where his homeland’s red-list status prevented him flying in for the celebrations of Spencer’s London Film Festival bow, I probe him for his take on monarchy in the UK. The 45-year-old’s answers were long, thoughtful and – full disclosure – made me want to watch the film again.
What drew you to the story of Diana, and to want to tell it?
I grew up in Chile and for some reason, my mother was very interested in Diana’s life, and Diana’s situations, and problems, and challenges – and also fashions. And I was very curious to try to understand, as I grew up, what was it that was so interesting for [my mother,] a woman who was so far from Diana? Then later I understood that what was happening to my mum was also happening to millions around the world. What is it that creates such an interest?
So that is probably the main reason to make a movie that could somehow maybe deliver some of those answers.
Maybe Diana was a woman who was a very regular person at some point, in [terms of] the things she liked and the things she loved, but in a very unusual context. And also I think that [because of] everything that she went through, people were able to relate to her in a very beautiful, intimate way.
Then when she died in ’97, I remember how the world was paralysed. And from that day on, I kept thinking there was a movie there.
What connections are there between your Jackie Kennedy film and your Diana film?
[After] we made Jackie, I thought this was a good opportunity to make a movie that could be somehow a cousin of, and speak to, Jackie – but also a movie that could exist and stand by itself as well.
It’s about mystery. The key here is that even though we all know a lot – and there’s a lot of books around, and television shows and documentaries, you name it – the truth is, no one really knows who Diana was exactly. And that amount of mystery is essential to cinema, I think. Because then you have an active audience trying to reveal that secret.
For younger audiences – or even republican audiences – why does the story of this doomed princess from the Nineties resonate now?
Because she was a very strong and unique human being, and at the same time, she was a pop icon. And when someone becomes an element of pop culture, there’s always material that could be interesting for all generations. I always think that pop culture can be determined [by] a number of things. Let’s say there’s a [successful] musician that I don’t like, or I don’t care about, can I really ignore that figure? No.
For example, I really like Billie Eilish. But let’s say I don’t like her. Can I ignore it? Can I just avoid the existence of Billie Eilish? No. She’ll be around, no matter what. That is a pop culture figure that would exist around, in your life, no matter what your relationship with that person.
So when that happens, you can always ask questions. What are the reasons why that pop icon is in my life? And what is my version of that pop icon? How do I see them? Everyone has a vision and when you have that, then you have an interesting element, and human material, to create a fiction, so we can see how we would relate to it. And that would probably have a meaning in history and tradition – especially in the UK, I think.
What brief did you give Steven Knight in terms of the story you were hoping to tell?
I never really briefed him. We met a couple of times in London and we discussed how we could approach the story. We quickly agreed it would be more interesting to focus on just a few days. And days that were incredibly relevant to her life, days that were inside of a huge crisis.
We thought that everyone, when they’re facing a big crisis, probably could behave in a way that can almost find you, more than when things are actually working well. Also, we [wondered]: how can we find a little moment of her life where she was able to define her identity, and understand who she really was and who she really wanted to be?
And that moment is the moment when she decides to leave the family and be herself, and not be someone that is expecting to be the queen eventually. Someone who is the wife of a royal family member. So it was a beautiful opportunity to focus on a moment where she could find herself and decide to be who she was before she got [married].
And by doing so, she realises that the most important thing that she has in the world is her kids.
So that’s almost our starting point. Then Steven went away and incredibly quickly wrote the script that we shot. He’s just brilliant. The structure, humanity and dialogue are just exceptional, and it was a pleasure to film his script.
Could you describe your initial conversations with Kristen about playing Diana?
It was funny. I’d made movies about real people before and Kristen had as well. We talked and I said: “Look, it’s going to be quite a process. I really think there’s an interesting movie here and I really think you can pull it off.” And she said, with a very strong American accent: “Dude, I’ll do it.” And we started the process.
The thing is, she has not only the beauty and can be very elegant, and can play a sophisticated woman. But also she has an incredible amount of mystery, just like Diana. And that mystery becomes essential.
Which of her previous films had you seen?
I saw the two movies she did with Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria. And I found that she had a very strong internal world. Even though it’s someone who could express what the character was going through, you would never really completely understand what was going on. And that is what makes her like a movie star from the ’50s or ’60s, like an old-school actress.
Then after she agreed, I went and saw the Twilight cycle – I hadn’t seen it! – with my daughter. And, you know, I enjoyed it.
But I wanted to study her physicality and her performance skills. Then, when we started filming, I realised that we had in front of us an actress that was already mature. That she had been somehow preparing herself for a role like this, maybe without knowing it.
But going back to the question: she can create the illusion of Diana. If you look at her, she doesn’t really look like Diana a lot. And that’s not the point of a movie like this. She can at some point perform in a way that you could actually feel – on an emotional and even intellectual level – that she is her. And I think we were very lucky to have her.
Were the parallels with Kristen’s personal experiences – a young woman who was trapped quickly and early in an intense global spotlight – useful to you when you were directing her as Diana?
Well, not really. Maybe for her. But for me, I was really focused on what she could bring as an actress to the process. What you’re saying, yeah, sure, I completely understand. Her life has been at some point exposed. I wouldn’t say at the same level as Diana, but I understand. But it’s not something I worked with or dealt with before I talked to her or during the process.
What are the key fashion moments that, for you and your costume designer, helped telegraph Diana’s fashion iconography?
There are many. She went through different types of fashion in her life. But if you look back, she was always taking risks in the fashion she was wearing. One thing is obviously how the clothes she was wearing were cut and of course the materials. But for me, the most relevant element of her fashion is the use of colour. How she was always playing with colour in a way that was so striking and unique.
And also, she knew how to exist and be herself throughout her [clothing] choices. When we started the process with Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer, she printed hundreds of different looks that Diana had. It was incredibly varied. So we tried to assemble a number of ideas so there would be some coherence in what we were doing in those days [in which we set the film].
But as well as being very risky, she was very playful. And she knew that being elegant and sophisticated can be a very interesting weapon of communication. Not just about what it makes her feel but also about how others would feel when they looked at her. And she knew that.
That’s probably related as well to the way she learned how to deal with the press and media. That speaks to how intelligent she was.
If the fashion is a statement in your film, so is the music. Jonny Greenwood’s score brings stateliness, intensity, oppression and almost claustrophobia. What kind of conversations did you and he have in terms of building the sound of the film?
Jonny wanted to find different textures. What we discussed was that, of course, the oppression and the madness had to be there. And I didn’t really know how to express it with words – it’s so difficult because it’s music, right? So you can’t really talk about it. And then he came up with the idea of having a baroque ensemble and producing baroque music.
Then he brought the idea of combining that with jazz. I thought that was incredibly interesting, but at the same time very difficult to pull off. But it’s Jonny and I’ve been a fan of his work, of course with the band and then the film music he’s done, particularly with Paul Thomas Anderson.
Then he started recording pieces of baroque music that fit really well with what you’re saying: the royal attitude, [which is] the organisation, the spirit, the oppression sometimes… the things you think a film that deals with royal issues [sounds like]. Then when he brought the jazz, we realised it was fitting really well when we were just with Diana.
How does the music fit with Kristen’s performance?
The jazz became the music for her character. And even though the jazz can be very intense and a representation of psychological crisis in the movie, it can also be an expression of freedom. That’s why it’s free jazz. It really helps to describe the oppression. But at the same time, when it has to be unleashed and released, it really does it well, for example in the dancing montage. That piece is called Crucifix, and it really opens [up] the movie and makes her understand what she has to do – and [her] faith in the healing process she’s about to start.
The film is far from a black and white portrayal of Diana. At times she does come across as a tragic, doomed princess who was treated appallingly. She also comes across as deeply annoying. Was that your intention, to present the kaleidoscopic colours of her character?
Well, it’s her context. She was born into privilege, related to the royals from the day she was born. And she was born in a house that was inside a royal estate, owned by The Queen. So [given that,] it’s very hard not to be that person eventually. But, yeah, of course, it’s part of the cocktail that the character has and has to deal with.
At the same time, that is what is so interesting. Even though she was in the most extraordinary context, she was always behaving in a way that we could all understand and we could all create empathy for.
I found myself with a character that was naturally an organic empath. And even though she could behave as you are describing at some points, she was always empathetic in a way that I have never felt with another character before that I have worked with. So it was a good thing to see, because it was real. It was not designed by a screenwriter or a filmmaker. She was like that and I really think that she had a beautiful heart. I care about that.
After making the film, what understanding did you have of her sons’ personalities, notably Harry and his desire to escape the royal family and the UK for America?
Look, I don’t feel very comfortable talking about them. Because I think they’ve had a lot [to deal with]. And I am not the guy who’s gonna be talking publicly about them. I will say that I do respect them. And I will say that while we were shooting the movie, I was looking to our [child] actors, who are the ages of my kids. And I was really moved by them, not only because they were great actors but because they made me feel what [William and Harry] went through, particularly when they lost their mum.
I got to understand what movie I was making thanks to the presence of those kids in the movie. That’s what stayed with me.
What do you want audiences to get from Spencer?
[Exhales] It’s a very good question and very hard to answer. If I told you, I would kill the process of the movie. I worked really hard to put everything there, so everyone can experience the movie they want to see and feel.
So I don’t know. I think it’s a movie about motherhood. We all have a mother, whatever our story with our own mother is. So this is a story about motherhood. That’s what I hope stays [with audiences]. But let’s see.
Spencer is out on 5th November. Yeah, I am gonna go see it again. Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack is out on Mercury KX on 12th November. Definitely worth a listen even if you don’t go see the film