Review: “Spencer”

Anyone heading into “Spencer” looking for a Princess Diana biopic needs to check their expectations at the door. Director Pablo Larraín’s film, written by Steven Knight, opens with the statement that this is “a fable based on a true story.” “Spencer” is a reimagining of Diana’s life and state of mind circa 1991, as she gathers with the rest of the royal family for the Christmas holidays. The psychological drama which turns the castle into a prison and the fairytale life of a princess into a horror story becomes increasingly surreal as it progresses, but remains anchored by Kristen Stewart’s commendable portrayal of a woman breaking down and finding her way back to herself.

“Spencer” works off the supposition that the audience is already somewhat knowledgeable about Diana’s life and the general workings of the royal family, but it opens with a sequence that perfectly conveys Diana’s larger-than-life status contrasted with how small she feels personally. After we see guards, cooks, and servants prepare the Sandringham Estate— a massive mansion on the Norfolk coast— for the royal family’s arrival with military-like precision, we cut to Diana, alone, driving down a country road in her convertible. She’s lost— literally— and even though she grew up in the area, she doesn’t recognize it anymore. So she stops in a little cafe by the roadside to ask for directions, which she does so in a soft, shy near-whisper, as the patrons scattered around the cafe stare agape.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer”

But while we get flashes throughout “Spencer” of the media frenzy that surrounded Diana— a military man called Major Gregory (played by Timothy Spall) was even hired to keep an eye on Diana over the course of the weekend— the film is for the most part incredibly contained, creating a stifling feeling that runs through almost the entire movie and turns the lush mansion into a cold prison. Everything that is beautiful is made ugly, and not just the lavish rooms, every inch of which are draped in items and artwork demonstrating the owners’ wealth (the overall production design of this movie, by the way, is spectacular). Food is a big part of “Spencer,” as the family gathers for elaborate meals throughout the weekend, the organized rows of stovetops and shelves of delicate cakes and pastries being one of the film’s most memorable recurring images. But Diana has an eating disorder, and her body rejects most of the food she ingests. Larraín doesn’t dodge any issues here, including this one; we see Diana throwing up in the bathroom, stuffing herself with desserts in the pantry, and at one point during Christmas Eve dinner, her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) coldly remarks to her that it would be a shame if she vomited up the meal that so many people worked so hard to prepare for her.

Diana, long referred to as “the people’s princess,” has never needed her image to be humanized, but her eating disorder is just one of many ways in which Larraín explores the very real mental and physical struggles she faced largely as a result of the control exerted over her by the royal family with a frankness and borderline absurdity that’s rarely found in the countless news stories, books, and movies that have centered around her. She attempts to confide in her dresser Maggie (played by the reliably excellent Sally Hawkins), only for Charles to have her removed and replaced with a woman who’s much less understanding. She barely speaks to her husband, and when she does, their conversations quickly turn to arguments. Diana and Charles are never pictured within close physical proximity in “Spencer”; in their longest shared scene, Larraín places them on opposite ends of a seemingly impossibly long billiard table. Diana only seems to take comfort in the company of her children, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), but by the end of the movie we bear witness to the ways in which the royal family exerts their influence over them as well, slowly pulling them away from her. The potentially exploitive nature of “Spencer” isn’t lost on me; maybe it’s mostly because it feels like we’ve been inundated with content about Diana lately (including the most recent season of “The Crown” and an awful Netflix filmed musical of a show that’s coming to Broadway later this year), with the parallels with her life even extending to the media coverage surrounding Meghan Markle. But the fact that “Spencer” is not strictly a true account allows for some separation between the real woman and the character seen in this movie.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer”

Stewart’s performance as Diana has much to do with this also. She doesn’t exactly resemble Diana in face or voice, but she becomes a version of her regardless. This is because she isn’t trying to emulate Diana’s public-facing persona, the one that we see in interviews and archival footage, but is rather providing her own interpretation of the private Diana, the one that the vast majority of us have never seen and will never truly know. At times, Stewart relies a little too heavily on a whisper-accent that gets a bit grating over time, but for the most part, she deftly conveys how withdrawn Diana feels from the rest of the family through gestures (hands clasped, head tilted down) and her soft-spoken voice, drumming up empathy with the glimpses of the girlish, once-carefree woman that is still in there underneath all the hurt.

“Spencer” derives its title from Diana’s maiden name, appropriate because this movie largely revolves around Diana reconnecting with her past in order to change her future. At the start of the movie, she tells her sons that when it comes to the royal family and their traditions, “There is only one tense. There is no future. Past and present are the same thing.” Diana finds the past chasing her throughout “Spencer,” in her close proximity to the now-derelict estate where she grew up, and in the image of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII whose husband had her executed for treason. These chilling images—a haunted house, the ghost of a dead queen—contribute to Diana’s increasingly frazzled mental state, accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s horn-driven jazz score, the loudness of which amps up the chaos. But one of the most fascinating aspects of Larraín’s film is that, for all the sadness and myriad methods of abuse we witness Diana facing over the course of the movie, and even though we all know how her story ultimately ends, he concludes this brief chapter of her life on an uplifting note, with Diana reclaiming a piece of herself, a little slice of happiness and freedom. In “Spencer,” Diana is more prisoner than princess, but for at least a few moments, she gets a happily ever after.

“Spencer” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.

Media review screener courtesy Neon Rated.

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