Film Review – Spencer
The life and tragic death of Princess Diana will probably be a subject of study for all time. Her turbulent relationship with her ex-husband, Prince Charles, and the British Royal Family has been well recorded in articles, books, interviews, and movies. In just the last couple of years, we’ve had notable portrayals of her in The Crown and in Diana – The Musical (2021). There are also the countless documentaries that cover just about every aspect of her life. The media frenzy that accounted for much of her stress and anxiety is also the very thing that has kept her in the public consciousness. Although she passed more than two decades ago, it appears the legacy of Diana is still very much alive.
Spencer (2021) operates differently than other on-screen iterations. It begins with the title. Instead of referring to Diana as the royal “Princess” or “Princess of Wales,” the film adopts her maiden name. It clearly references who she was before her marriage – before the gossip and tabloid headlines and all the familial strife that came afterward. It’s no surprise, then, that the narrative would put heavy emphasis on her desire to return to her youth, when the only concerns she had was spending time with her family and roaming the grounds of her childhood home. The film isn’t so much focused on being historically accurate as it is being accurate to her state of mind.
Written by Steven Knight and directed Pablo Larraín, the narrative drops us in on Diana’s life during the Christmas holidays of 1991 at the royal family’s Sandringham estate. Just as he did with Jackie (2016), Larraín doesn’t craft the story as a traditional biopic but more of an intimate character study. He narrows his focus into this small timeframe, where we get a peek into Diana thoughts and fears. By this time, her relationship with the family has already been strained, she loathes having to go to Sandringham, and the stench of Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles hangs in the air.
In style and tone, we immediately get a sense that something is off kilter. Jonny Greenwood’s music has a low, ominous feel. Claire Mathon’s cinematography captures the adorned hallways and drawing rooms with a ghostly stillness. The gorgeous, faded pastel colors creates a sense of subdued life, as though the exuberance of the holidays has gone missing. Characters are warned to keep their voices down, as the thin walls allow all conversations to be heard. The aesthetics of Larraín’s style resembles that of a haunted house or horror movie. Watching it I was reminded of Rebecca (1940) and The Innocents (1961) in the way the location looms over the central character like a constant omen of dread.
Kristen Stewart delivers a career best performance as Diana. She plays the role as a woman constantly in conflict with others and herself. Her defiance of tradition and old ways of thinking butt heads with her devotion to her family, especially her children William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). While she hates being at Sandringham, she knows her sons love it there, and so she grits her teeth and tries to get through it. However, we can see that she is starting to come apart at the seams. Although the estate is full of family members, butlers, cooks, and footmen, Diana feels an overwhelming isolation. Many of the other characters, such as Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet) are captured from the periphery, with their disapproving eyes lingering on the princess. The man in charge of the estate, Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall) appears to have been hired to keep Diana on a short leash. It’s well known that Diana enjoyed speaking to employees of the royal family. Here she confides her feelings to the head chef (Sean Harris), and to a larger degree her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) to whom she develops a tight bond.
Sebastián Sepúlveda’s editing intentionally becomes more dreamlike the further things go along. As Diana’s self-control starts to waver, so too does the narrative’s grasp on what is real and what is imaginary. Diana longs for escape, and as she draws within herself the visuals flashback to her past, to the joy of her wedding day, and the love she has for her family. This is juxtaposed with scenes of her struggling with her deteriorating mental health, her bouts with bulimia, and the lack of affection she receives from Charles (Jack Farthing). The stress takes her to the edge. A running theme involves Diana’s fascination with Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) the wife of King Henry VIII who was charged with treason and beheaded in 1536. There are recurring moments where Diana imagines Anne Boleyn sitting beside her. While this doesn’t necessarily mean Diana predicted she would have the same fate, it does suggest that she saw similarities in how they were both treated as commodities. They were symbols meant to uphold the image of the family, and that to question the institution would be an unforgivable betrayal.
Spencer tells the story of Diana embracing her own self-worth – of her coming to the realization that she is more than fancy dresses and ancient rituals, that she was a flesh and blood human being with her own beliefs and attitudes. In a world of rigid formalities, she managed to find some small piece of independence, and with that a sliver of happiness. The film isn’t concerned with how Diana died, but in how she decided to live.