Oscars 2022: The Prisoner Princess

Princess Diana’s Christmas Day 1991 gown was featured in “Spencer” during the toilet bowl scene (one of many toilet bowl scenes).

She might have been dubbed Diana, Princess of Walls.

I’ve just watched “Spencer,” having saved for last the vehicle I suspected would showcase the worst of the contenders for Actress in a Leading Role in this year’s Oscars race. Never dreamed this film would be the one to awaken me from my hibernation blogging about my annual Oscar-nom marathon.

For Sleeping Beauty, it took only a kiss from a handsome prince for destiny to dawn. While Di never had the flowing locks of Rapunzel, she was locked in a far grimmer prison than that Grimms’ damsel ever faced.

Or so we suppose.

Consider the feeding frenzy surrounding Diana’s fractured fairy tale — the endless exposés, biopics, tributes still churning nearly 25 years after her death. The world seemed insatiable, and oh! how queer to realize this privileged, pampered person was bulimic, her psyche and body violently rejecting her enviable station in life, as royally imperfect as we all now know it to be.

So along comes yet another portrait of the woman, our infatuation and fascination with her yet unfulfilled. Or did no one bother to see it because, like me, you couldn’t imagine that Kristen Stewart could do her justice? Or, like me, you had a trusted friend on Facebook, an influencer, a loyal subject, who risked catching covid to return to a movie theater for it alone, then panned it as fool’s gold, pretentious and dull.

Lucky for me I am obliged to see every movie nominated for anything every awards season. Lucky, lucky me that I stuck with it, even though the opening scenes plodded along — at first, while cooking breakfast, I was only half-watching on my 6-inch-wide phone screen with a borrowed Hulu password because I didn’t want to invest any money in screening it. I just needed to evaluate Stewart’s portrayal, check it off my list, move on.

Those languid, torturously long, self-indulgent camera shots; that soundtrack drenched wearily in strings; the tedium of showing the unloading of crates of food and the lines of vehicles and servants — preparations for a decadent three-day Christmas feast and holiday planned with the precision of a military exercise, with all the good soldiers doing their sacrificial duty for the queen, God, and country. But I finally succumbed to its hypnotic spell and realized its intrinsic artfulness, torturing us as Diana had been tortured by the banality of luxury, the emptiness of every idle day.

I have not read word one of anyone else’s review, and I hate to think this film was this year’s laughingstock. Not only did I fully buy into Stewart’s performance — the way she delicately but gawkily walked, showing Diana’s vulnerabilities and uncertainties, the way she tilted her head and lowered her eyes, as if she always wanted to hide from the glare of the spotlight, or maybe just disappear. The way her entire dialogue was delivered in nothing much more than a whisper — not only because the palatial walls of Sandringham House had ears, but because she was like a wisp of a person by then, something that could be carried off by the slightest, ficklest shift in wind.

And some of those kitchen scenes evoked the horrors of “The Shining” — being caught by the butler/watchman raiding the pantry at midnight, for instance. The dream life turned nightmarish.

The field of best actress nominees seems more cutthroat than ever this year. The only powerhouse I can easily dismiss is Penélope Cruz, despite her lovely, if rushed, elocution of what we Latinas refer to as “Spain-Spanish.” “Parallel Mothers” was, to me, a predictable yet cartoonish patchwork of a story. It’s undeniably the worst film I have seen so far this season (and I loved “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” so it’s not just about Pedro Almodóvar’s style). “Parallel Mothers” felt like a badly scripted novella about lineage, legacy, DNA, and war crimes, and that’s all I have to say about that one.

Of all the leading ladies’ turns, the one I wanted most desperately to experience was Olivia Colman’s, so I had cued up “The Lost Daughter” first, right after the nominations were unveiled. Colman is most famous for playing Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown” — funny, then, that I started with her and ended with Stewart as Diana.

Besides Colman, and I’ll get back to her, maybe in another post, we are left with all these legendary actresses “doing” other legends. Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye (riveting), Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball (brilliant), and Stewart as Diana (breathtaking). But neither Chastain nor Kidman nor the movies they appeared in inspired me to write words. Midway through “Spencer,” I had to pause and grab a pen and pad just to jot down some lines.

Diana, misunderstood and monitored by everyone around her, seemingly going mad, can get real only with her sons and a particular dresser (one who dresses her — not the inanimate object, although she also chats with some of those, too). Her name is Maggie. At one glorious turning point in the movie, she confides to Maggie that she’s been haunted by Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, who was beheaded for infidelity even though it was the king doing the cheating. She says: “I’ve been imagining how they’ll write about me in a thousand years. If you’re royal, the more time that passes, the fewer words they use to describe you. William the Conqueror, Elizabeth the Virgin, Diana …”

Well, it’s been only 25 years, Di. Give us time.

The montage that follows, while some might call it hokey — glimpses of her dancing solo in the lonely halls and rooms of the castle, running free as a child, playing with her boys, doffing her trappings and chains — made me think “Diana the Shattered.” Like a beautiful crystal in pieces, or those strands of pearls that repeatedly, symbolically break, or imagining her actual death, crumpled in the back seat of that bended Mercedes, skeletal-thin, shattered, even though, for a minute, just as is depicted in the movie, she did thrill to the joy ride, the escape hatch, the commoner’s pleasures, ’80s music, fast food, and faster cars.

Also deeply touching was her communion with the pheasants, or would that be “peasants”? There’s a scene in which she talks to a pheasant, a “beautiful but stupid bird,” which she does not want her little princes to be caught dead shooting. The whole notion of beauty — this princess being advised to just look the part, be beautiful, all the outfits she’s supposed to wear and in the proper order, to never stray from the rotation, but also never to be seen through the curtains, except during authorized photo opps when the paparazzi flock and stampede and hound and scavenge. She was plucked from the field like one of their prized feathers. (And her famous feathered hair — poetic.)

Arguably contrived but totally iconic is the scene of her in her elegant white gown, its billowy, bedazzled train fanned out and encircling her as she clutches the toilet bowl — elegance and inelegance combined in this confusing, heartbreaking portrait of a fragile woman.

Of beauty, Stewart as Spencer says: “Beauty is clothes” — as unimportant and unrevealing as an assigned wardrobe, the costumes that can hide the essence of who we are.

The only line I remember the queen speaking to this Diana is when she mentions she has noticed that Diana gets photographed a lot, and it doesn’t matter what she wears — that the only time it matters is when she gets her portrait done to be put on the currency of England. It’s then that one must choose wisely, she counsels.

Later Diana tells confidante Maggie that all the stuff of her life — the men, the husbands, the sex, the mistresses, the deceit, the succession — that it’s all “currency, that’s all we have.”

Even though she never lived to see that day, to be queen or to have her image etched on British coins, Diana remains current, her legacy still traded by historians and artists, used as capital for truth-telling and cautionary-tale-ing.

Most of all, in death, she’s finally free of the bonds that weighted her down in life.

And although I haven’t yet decided whom to vote for in the best actress category, I want to eat my words about doubting Stewart’s abilities. And maybe the judgment-of-women thing is the whole problem, anyway, and we shouldn’t put anyone on a pedestal, least of all people elevated by their mere accident of birth or accident-prone “lucky” life.

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