I watched Spencer, the Princess Diana biopic from Jackie director Pablo Larraín starring Kristen Stewart, in September during the Toronto International Film Festival. I was so happy to be back in a theater I thought I would enjoy pretty much anything put in front of me. But then I saw Spencer — a movie that I can only describe as a perfume commercial about a woman with an eating disorder.
I sat through the whole experience wanting to scream at Larraín, who made a vapid and cynical film that’s nevertheless just Oscar bait-y enough — Kristen Stewart's accent is delivered in the faintest whisper— to fool even some of the smartest critics into believing it adds anything to the Princess Diana industrial complex. But mostly, I audibly laughed at the end. Spoilers ahead, although you can barely spoil a biopic where nothing actually happens and no insight into the subject is given.
Spencer is poised to make you feel bad for Princess Diana the entire time, which is what we’ve been doing since her death in 1997. Larraìn positions her as a classic gothic heroine. Over the three days of the Christmas of 1991, she paces around the castle at the hands of the tyrannical royal family, her only form of control being her eating disorder, portrayed in a way that is so needlessly graphic as to feel gratuitous. For Larraín, it also appears to be the only interesting thing about her.
The literal ghost of Anne Boleyn haunts her, and her only friends are the people she employs, including a royal dresser played by Sally Hawkins who also has a crush on her. Clearly, the film is meant to make us feel that Diana was a woman of the people. The fact that she grew up literally right beside the Sandringham Estate, or any other specifics of her subjectivity, are not important.
Larraín spends an eternity not telling us anything we don’t know about the princess (she’s sad and the royal family is evil) but it’s at the end where he and screenwriter Steven Knight try their best to hammer in that she’s just like us.
After sparing her children from a hunting trip, they hop into her convertible while pop music plays. Their destination? I'll let you have three guesses. Balmoral? No. Elton John concert? No. Euro Disney? No. Their destination is a KFC drive-thru.
A KFC drive-thru! The Princess is wearing a hat as a disguise. The drive-thru operator asks for her order name, and she says — gasp — “Spencer.” She and her boys proceed to enjoy some finger lickin’ good chicken. Fin.
I empathize with what Princess Diana had to go through, the scrutiny she was under and how it led to her untimely death. I also know from experience that a KFC drive-thru can be a site of liberation. But it’s not enough. Spencer hammers the “this princess was just like us” fantasy in a way that feels just as reductive as the royal-approved narrative about Diana it is presumably arguing against. Despite all the gestures at exploring her humanity, Larraín’s Diana remains a mere symbol. After so many years, she deserves better — or at least more than a bucket of fried chicken.