“A fable based on a true tragedy.”
Spencer opens with that line resting in the bottom right corner of a black screen. It is a warning not to expect a traditional biopic from what will follow. More interestingly, it questions the very nature of Diana’s tragedy. Is the tragedy the loveless doom of her fairytale marriage, her fruitless attempts to modernize a centuries-old institution, or from the horrifying inevitability of her tragic death?
The answer, according to director Pablo Larraín, is yes, to all.
Spencer is a gilded cage of relentless torment; psychological torture served alongside pheasant dinners and Christmas puddings. The film takes place at Christmas 1991, a decade after Diana (Kristen Stewart) married her ostensible Prince Charming. The marriage barely exists in name only now, but the rigid traditions that have defined the royal family for generations remain. Diana is required to attend the three-day Christmas holiday at Sandringham, the royal family’s country estate. There, she is enveloped in an environment aimed at suffocating, gaslighting, and humiliating her. Her only refuges are her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and her two sons. Still, Diana is haunted in that house by her past, present, and future, and her survival hinges on reconciling the three and finding some path forward.
Diana’s path forward in Spencer would be a nonstarter if we didn’t believe the woman at its center. At first, or fiftieth, glance, Kristen Stewart seemed like a near-catastrophic choice as Diana. She’s proven her skill as a performer in recent years, but little suggested that she could believably fill the shoes of the world’s most photographed woman.
And yet, Stewart is magnificent. She doesn’t quite look or sound like Diana, but it’s irrelevant. Stewart vanishes into Diana’s public persona with startling ease. Her true brilliance lies in how credible she makes the parts of Diana we could never know. The simmering paranoia and near-naked misery she weaves into every action never feel false or calculated. The real Diana was someone you wanted to root for, and Stewart succeeds in making you want to root for hers. It feels impossible that she won’t be awarded an Oscar for her unique transformation.
Pablo Larraín crafts Spencer into a true gothic nightmare for Stewart to play in, transforming the Sandringham estate into a tangible and intangible house of horrors. Every corner of the sprawling mansion and surrounding grounds conveys the monarchy’s stifling atmosphere, and Larraín deploys every technique to amplify the resulting dread to its logical extreme. Diana literally clutches her pearls in claustrophobic close-ups while wide and color-muted shots swallow her up in the estate’s hazy landscape. No matter where you turn, Diana’s torment is inescapable and palpable. Larraín’s vision of her misery is beautifully, meticulously crafted, making for one of the most handsome-looking films of the year.
The relentless approach to communicating how miserable Diana is can sometimes feel like too much. Sitting side-by-side Spencer’s existential dread is its melodrama, which Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight can wear into the ground. Subtlety may never have been in the cards (see that opening statement), but I wish they had dialed it back some. The script’s heavy-handed dialogue about the monarchy’s immense power and the irrelevance of its individuals is the greatest culprit. Hearing the sentiment repeated endlessly in conversation can shrink the unsettling atmosphere. The omniscient presence of Timothy Spall’s Alastair Gregory and the regal, withering looks of Stella Gonet’s Queen Elizabeth are more effective messengers.
Diana, the individual, also suffers from Spencer’s limited narrative focus. She intrigued us because she possessed multitudes, could often be compellingly contradictory. The Diana depicted in Spencer is flattened significantly, with an overwhelming emphasis on her tumult, leaving little room to explore her savvy, compassion, and wicked humor. There are glimpses, thanks to Stewart’s finely tuned performance, but it’s not enough. The film barely gives us enough to justify its primary conceit – that Diana needed to find herself again to survive until fate intervened. But who is Diana, beneath the choreographed gowns and flashing bulbs? I’m not entirely convinced the film knows.
Spencer also struggles with her relationships. A critical scene between Charles and Diana – the only one in the film – feels out-of-step with our knowledge of their actual relationship. Again, it’s supposed to be a fable. Still, even the most fantastical rendering wouldn’t have Charles offering surprisingly tender advice to his estranged wife, a decade after it would’ve been most helpful. Diana’s best interactions are with her sons, who help pull her out of her endless malaise, and Maggie, who is sadly underused. Diana spends more time with the ghost of Anne Boleyn, the beheaded wife of Henry VIII, in an attempt to draw parallels that quite frankly don’t work under scrutiny.
Spencer is an ambitious effort to re-contextualize an iconic figure within a paranoid horror landscape. As beautiful and engaging as the film is, Larraín sometimes loses sight of his iconic subject amidst the heightened, nightmarish atmosphere he fills Sandringham with. To his credit, he found a surprisingly powerful partner in Kristen Stewart, who meets him halfway while grounding the film with a layered, all-time best performance. Spencer may not be the definitive film on Diana, but it does offer the definitive performance.