Spencer And The South American Myth Of Princess Diana

Spencer And The South American Myth Of Princess Diana

Pablo Larraín’s Chilean roots are key to understanding his non-traditional Princess Diana film, Spencer. His movie honours a scenario far too familiar to South Americans: long, warm discussions about the royal family in tiled kitchens all over the continent, reflecting a tenderness for a woman denied it for far too long. Rafaela Sales Ross remembers her own childhood in her grandmother’s kitchen as a looking-glass through which to see Larraín’s study of the princess.

The squeaky noise of my grandmother’s old fridge door reminds me of Princess Diana. Little feet walking quietly to the kitchen, waiting for the perfect moment to steal a wafer biscuit filled to the brim with doce de leite remind me of Princess Diana. Loud female voices after a few beers, fists hitting a wooden table in disagreement, remind me of Princess Diana. 

It was on my grandmother’s old fridge that I first saw Lady Di. A fading magnet with a picture of this beautiful woman in her wedding dress, all edges covered by the fluffy white frills of her imposing veil. “Where is her husband?” I thought to myself. Her husband didn’t matter. Not to my grandmother, and not to anyone else whose hands might ever touch that rusty old fridge. 

With Spencer, Chilean director Pablo Larraín brings Princess Diana back to the warmth of a Latin kitchen. Labelled “a fable based on a true tragedy”, the film reimagines a Royal Christmas weekend at the traditional estate of Sandringham, a country retreat a couple of hours away from the imposing halls of Buckingham Palace. Here, the whole family is gathered for the holidays as Diana’s mental health crumbles, her marriage to Prince Charles close to dangerously imploding. Larraín, however, refuses to reduce Diana to the pernicious stereotypes she was confined to for far too long. With Spencer, the director treats this woman, who the whole world believes to know so well, with kindness, navigating the complexities of her predicament with the light hand of those who harbour no judgments. 

Kindness is what I remember the most about Diana growing up. The kindness my grandmother and her friends offered without hesitation, a kindness fuelled by a fierce desire to defend a woman from the sharp tongues of those seeking modern Delilahs. Around a shabby table covered in green velvet fabric stapled to wood, my mother and her friends played endless rounds of cards, a deck in their right hand and a lit cigarette in the left. They uttered the princess’ name with the beautiful open vowels of our language – “Dai”, the A joining the I in a charming, prolonged sound. Diana’s name was always followed by some sort of slander of Charles, and in that shared bashing of a man, women projected their own private sufferings onto the very public suffering of one of theirs: a woman refused the easy mercy so promptly gifted to a man.

To the colonised, the coloniser is a mythical creature. Oh, the white Europeans and their wonderlands where public transport runs on time and is always clean, where taxes go straight into heavily-funded health systems and people are always perfectly dressed in double-breasted coats and cream turtlenecks. Oh, the snow-kissed parks and wide streets filled with sudoku-like variations of Starbucks/Costa/Pret/Caffè Nero, where your aforementioned cream-turtleneck-wearing model can confidently order a Frappuccino knowing the barista will never misspell their name. To the ones whose land was ravaged by people who believed it their right to do so, it is almost impossible to conceive the white European as anything but an entity so entirely possessed by confidence that they must have come from a world devoid of hardships. 

This is, of course, somewhat untrue, but the scars left by colonisation make it much easier for the colonised to envision the coloniser as an entity so soaked in privilege it drips. Perhaps this is why Diana was so warmly embraced by Latinos. Not only women such as my mother and grandmother, who were drawn to Diana out of natural sisterhood, but Latinos in general, who saw Diana as a cog in a perfectly-oiled machine. Di broke the spell: she gifted marginalised onlookers with a golden seat to the twisted spectacle that was her decaying relationship with the Royal Family. And, for those oppressed by the very same system that not only allowed for the maintenance of an institution such as the British Royals but also legitimated the lack of accountability that led Diana to her downfall, it was easy to take her side. 

When interviewed during the Venice Film Festival, where Spencer had its world premiere, Larraín said, “I made Spencer for my mother (...) I wanted to make a movie that my mother would like.” This motivation, so inherently personal, amplifies the manner in which Larraín’s identity pervades the film. The director displays his Latinidad through unguarded gentleness, filling his portrayal of Diana with the same compassion that permeated the conversations I heard growing up. 

In Spencer, Diana is irrevocably Diana, from the hesitancy in her voice to the decisiveness of her steps. Larraín employs iconic imagery (such as the princess’ famous wedding dress) to ground the viewer to the version of Diana that remains forever captured in fridge magnets while also crafting a brand new, painfully tangible person; someone mid-metamorphosis, a living being susceptible to the radical changes that come from the encroaching madness caused by never-ending, ever-present patterns. 

In the film’s most poignant scene, Diana plays a game with her two sons on Christmas Eve. The three are hidden in the darkness, visible only through the faint light of contraband torches. The house sleeps, preparing for the marathon of traditions awaiting them at the break of dawn. The rules of the game are simple: Diana, William and Harry ask each other questions – honest answers only – referring to one another as “soldier” and “sir”. A few rounds in, little William asks his mother “Do you want to be queen, soldier?” and, after a brief pause, Diana replies, “I’ll be your mum.” It’s a heavily charged answer delivered with rare lightness. Diana, the mother, is – of all Dianas we know – the freest. Free to play, to speak, to question, to care. Free. 

This is not to say the Diana we see here is carefree. Spencer is at times claustrophobic to the greatest extent of discomfort. Sharp edges protrude from all angles, stairs and cupboards and canopies drawing in, space turned predator, the woman in the eye of it all on the cusp of being engulfed by this painful structure just as physical as it is metaphorical. And, yet, it is the warmth that lingers, the hushed gestures of generosity. Larraín translates the way in which Diana evoked empathy without ever pandering to beaten tropes. People wanted to care for Diana. People cared for Diana. This kindness, offered here so generously to a woman who was often denied it entirely, takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen, to the creaking sounds of rusty fridges, open vowels as beautiful as lost crowns.

Rafaela Sales Ross (@rafiews) is a proud Brazilian currently living in Scotland. She has a Masters in Film and Visual Culture and is a researcher of the portrait of suicide on film. Rafa, as she likes to be called, loves Harold and Maude and writing about the exploration of death, existence and legacy on film.

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