Spencer director Pablo Larraín: “Princess Diana was like a Greek tragic figure”

II am a foreigner in the UK and a foreigner to the royal family, ”says Pablo Larraín. “But I don’t think I’m a stranger to Diana.” Chilean filmmaker explains why he wanted to make a film about the Princess of Wales, the next biopic Spencer. Diana was a “world icon”, he says, and he was won over by the story that she was an “incredible and mysterious woman, trapped in the cogs of history and tradition.”

He was just the director, he thought, to explore the riddle – and maybe its familiarity, too. “Even though she was born to be privileged and eventually became Princess Diana, she was someone who felt very ordinary. Someone you can relate to. That’s one of the mysteries – how could she create so much empathy? “

Whatever your take on the Royal Family, it’s impossible not to sympathize with Diana as imagined in Spencer, the 45-year-old’s unprecedented visceral exploration of the woman behind the picture. Taking a vaguely factual (but, one might say, emotionally honest) approach to the story, the film looks at Diana through the lens of a nightmarish Christmas stay at Queen’s Sandringham House, when her marriage to Charles was at the edge of the precipice. “This is the story of the broken princess,” says Larraín, sipping tea sitting in front of a small table in a Soho hotel suite. “She steps into a fairy tale, and that fairy tale is turned upside down the moment she decides not to be part of the family.”

There are many aspects of Spencer it could irritate purists, especially the decision to pick Kristen Stewart, an American, in the lead role. And also because the film is quietly scathing about the royal family as an institution. In Stewart’s Diana, we see a woman on the verge of collapse (Larraín says she is “like a tragic Greek character”), stalked by the media and suffocated by the cold austerity of “the business”. We see her battle with bulimia replayed in horrific detail. We see acts of self-harm that are painful, even shocking to watch. Nonetheless, Larraín says the film was not meant to be provocative. “I am not pursuing the controversy,” he said. “I’m just trying to chase something that feels real.”

He continues, “I think the film correctly portrays Diana’s internal distress. And that’s what matters to me. An eating disorder is never just an eating disorder. It is a consequence of a mental health problem. It is a consequence of an internal crisis that she is going through. This is important to me, if you want to show that someone is hurting themselves, hurting themselves, you want to know why and how. But the controversy is completely irrelevant. It is not a real human concept.

Larraín has already carried out unusual studies on well-known people, none of them films the same but all of them are striking with their visual elegance. Two of his last three films have also been biopics – very unconventional on top of that. For English-speaking audiences, his best-known film is Jackie, the 2016 drama starring Natalie Portman as JFK’s shocked widow. The same year he released a playful cat and mouse drama Neruda, starring Luis Gnecco as fugitive poet Pablo Neruda and Gael García Bernal as a fictional police investigator on his trail. After that, Larraín returned to his roots with the 2019 low-budget, exhilarating kinetic Chilean drama. Ema, before returning to biopic mode. What prompted him to choose Diana as his next subject? On the one hand, he told me, his mother.

“She was the first person I saw growing up who really interested me,” he explains. “When the tragedy happened in 1997 and Diana passed away, my mother was really sad. Later, I realized that she was just one of hundreds of millions of people around the world. I got very curious. Why? Why does this person, who was a princess in the UK, have such an impact on my mother’s life? After an extensive research process that included movies, TV shows television, articles and books, I knew less and less. The more I learned, the more mysterious it became to me, the less answers I could find. And that mystery is essential in cinema, I think.

Outdoors looking: Kristen Stewart and Pablo Larraín

(Frédéric Batier)

Punctuality is perhaps also essential. One of the key themes of Spencer it is the escape – from a ruined marriage but also from the suffocating and impersonal ritualism of the royal family. It’s too tempting to tell Spencerthe royal family’s portrayal of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s predicament, and their decision to break with royal tradition and flee to the United States, although it seems oddly prescient. Spencer was still halfway through filming when the couple’s explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey aired earlier this year. But Larraín insists the parallels weren’t deliberate.

“That’s not the intention we had when we made the movie,” he says. “But we are looking at the reality from where we are. From the present. So of course people are going to tie it to everything that’s going on right now, and everything that’s going to happen tomorrow, yesterday. But I would be very specific and clear, that this is not the reason why we did it. And we weren’t specifically pursuing it. But I don’t think it’s preventable.

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Larraín has never fled politics before; his first films, including the wonderful 2012 Oscar nominated drama No, delivered sharp critiques of the Pinochet dictatorship. Spencer is a less overtly political work, although it still condemns the royal establishment in its scenes of wealth and nauseous excess, and in the toll it inflicts on Diana. What is billed as a well-meaning concern – closing Diana’s curtains to prevent the paparazzi from seeing through her window, for example – ultimately reads as oppression rather than protection. In any case, Larraín seems happy to let the film speak for itself. “Whatever I think of the current situation of the royal family, I think deeply and honestly [my opinion is] off topic. Who would care what I think? I will say I have enormous respect for William and Harry. And I think they’ve been through a lot of tough times. It’s Charles who, as you might expect, gets abused in the film – played with limited frustration by Poldark‘s Jack Farthing – while Camilla is nowhere to be found.

Marriage power: Stewart and Larraín film brief flashback scene

(Frédéric Batier)

The rest of the cast aren’t as star-studded as Stewart but populated with recognizable faces: Timothy Spall plays an uncompromising squire; Sean Harris the head of the house; Sally Hawkins plays royal dresser and Diana’s only adult confidante. It’s these parts that offer revealing little glimpses of the royal family’s underground operations, while Charles and the Queen (played by Stella Gonet) are confined to small roles in the narrative.

Larraín isn’t bothered by any criticism that his actors, especially Stewart, are not the spitting image of the royals themselves. “When movies feature real people and all they care about is how much the actors look like real people, you risk entering a look-alike contest,” he muses. “You could win! But it could end up being awkward for everyone involved. And what’s really beautiful is when someone like Kristen, who’s American, can travel to the character and deliver something that’s completely believable.

Larraín is full of praise for his lead actor, whom he describes as “like an old-fashioned movie star in the best sense of the word – like those actresses of the 50s or 60s”. Remembering their time on set, Larraín says he didn’t end up directing Stewart in the “usual, conventional way.” He continues, “There was a point where she had such control over the character, she was so deeply into the game… I found that many times my best instruction was not instruction. Stay silent and film it. I wish I had known before, honestly. You understand your own limitations as a man when you play as a female character.

The People’s Princess: Stewart as Diana in “Spencer”


Stewart herself spoke of the role in spiritual terms; it was in all respects an exceptionally intense undertaking. She said she would regularly collapse because of the “heartbreaking” memory of Diana’s death and described having “frightening spiritual feelings” on set. “There were times when my body and my mind forgot that she was dead,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Larraín doesn’t go that far, but when it comes to the star’s performance, his tone is one of awe-inspiring respect. Did he know what Stewart was going through? “It’s not that you were more or less aware of it. I saw it. It was happening right in front of me.

“There’s a point in a process like this where there’s an actress, Kristen, and then you’re on a set, and then it’s makeup, and then there’s another actor, and then he’s there’s more makeup, more stuff, and then there’s the props; lights; a microphone. The mechanics of a production. But there is a point where you see something that has cosmic truth. On a monitor . And you look up from the monitor, and you see her, and you say, ‘that’s what it is.’ She doesn’t pretend to be her, she doesn’t just play it. is not acting. That is something else.

“And it’s amazing when that happens. It’s a fucking miracle.

As you might expect, Stewart has already been tipped to be in contention for an Oscar for his role, something Larraín hopes will draw more attention to the work itself. But he is generally unfazed. “Do I care? Of course. If that’s going to get more people to see the movie? Hallelujah. But you know what they say about the awards, you don’t care. them only when they give them to you.

Spencer hits UK cinemas from November 5

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