Spencer can be one-note, but is claustrophobically effective

November 29, 2021

Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart), is facing away from the camera, alone. Her back is arched gracefully, not a hair on her head is out of place, and her long, extravagant dress billows out into a concentric circle, perfectly framed around her. She is vomiting into a toilet. Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is not exactly a biopic of the British princess, who tragically died in a car crash in 1996, and it is by no means a member of the group of fictional dramas which glorify royalty and aristocracy. Described as “a fable based on a true tragedy,” the film does not describe her death at all: instead, it is a claustrophobic, intense film about the day-to-day pressures of being Princess Diana and the breakdown that results. 

Spencer takes place between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day in 1991 (although Larraín is not very concerned with the period of this piece, not even depicting the year on screen). Diana has just learned that her husband, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), has been cheating on her with Camilla Parker Bowles, and must travel to a royal estate with her family to celebrate Christmas—but neither of these things are fully elaborated, either. Larraín chooses to eschew focus on the commonly reported elements of Diana’s story, such as her combative relationship with paparazzi and her struggling marriage with Charles. While these are part of the story, the focus is firmly on Diana’s interiority and her relationship with herself. 

Diana is clearly tortured by the absurdly regimented restrictions of royal life (those around her are visibly appalled that she chooses to wear her “dinner dress” at breakfast), and she is unable to control herself from visibly expressing this. Stewart’s performance is already getting awards-season attention, as she avoids looking or sounding like Diana to create a detailed yet stylized portrait of her distressed protagonist. Her performance is always elevated by the technical aspects of the film. Sandringham Estates can feel like a dream, lazily stuck in the past, yet it is also a cage, one that constricts Diana into herself, trapped inside her own mental illness. Shot on hazy celluloid by Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Claire Mathon and complemented with an equally loose jazz score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, with improvised melodies placed over a “royal” chord structure, the place-setting purposefully clashes with Larraín’s sharp angles and fast cuts. The movie has a compelling way of pushing in on the viewer, making them feel trapped, amplified by Stewart’s pained performance and the faceless, zombie-like royal family judging her every action. The abstraction of historical accuracy in favor of creating a mood piece makes Diana’s hallucinations feel more fantastical rather than an accurate depiction of mental illness: she may be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight are creating a fantasy inside her head. 

Diana is a suffering woman, but the film succeeds by not treating her like a martyr. While her suffering can be portrayed in a stylized manner (occasionally manifesting as violent hallucinations), the film does not take pity on her by sanctifying her. She is allowed to be human, to have irrational thoughts and feelings. Sometimes she acts erratically, making things worse for herself. She can treat the servants cruelly, unearthing an unawareness of her own class privilege. Diana is commonly described as the “people’s princess,” and this is depicted through her attempts to connect with people. However, having grown up in opulence her whole life, she is not the best at treating people as her equals. Diana’s relationship with her kids is one of the most interesting aspects of the film: she has an almost playful relationship with William and Harry, as if she is their older sister or babysitter rather than their mother, but she occasionally leaves them out in the cold. She is their connection to the complicated rules of the royal family, and while she clearly loves them very much, she can sometimes be stretched too thin to help them. Sympathy for Diana comes naturally through the performance and the suffering she faces: no one would want to be trapped in such a restrictive situation, and even though she is far from common, Larraín strikes the right note and causes you to feel sympathy without pity. 

While Spencer’s portrayal of its title character is rich and detailed, a lot of the film around her is one-note, which is where it starts to falter. Larraín’s exquisite style makes up for some flaws in Steven Knight’s script, which traffics in clunky, heavy-handed metaphors. A repeated phrase about “closing the curtains,” in which Diana is told to limit her relationships with others, is reinforced by the literal closing of her bedroom curtains. When Diana decides to make a decision to open up to people against the family’s wishes, she dramatically opens up some curtains, and the moment feels more graceless than empowering. Similarly, Diana’s newfound obsession with Anne Boleyn involves repeatedly stating Anne’s backstory, expository comparisons of Diana and Anne, and hallucinations of Anne that don’t add anything to the story. Supporting characters such as Farthing’s dismissive Charles, friendly chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), and estate major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) do not have much depth, and the actors sometimes seem to be trying to burst out of the limited palettes they are given. (Spall’s Gregory, torn between his requirement to manage the royal family and his urge to help Diana, gets the closest.) The ham-handedness inherent in the metaphors and characters also comes across in the music and direction, but despite being equally blunt, the technical aspects are far more compelling. 

Spencer is worth seeing for its bravura final act alone, which justifies the price of admission and cements what the film is truly about. Diana’s best friend at the estate is Maggie (Sally Hawkins), one of her dressers, who picks out her clothes and helps her try them on. While the role of a royal dresser reflects the hyper-compartmentalized order that is keeping her down, Diana actually enjoys her conversations with Maggie, so it is no surprise that she is sent away from the estate when Diana makes trouble. This is one of the inciting incidents causing Diana to lose her grip, but eventually, Maggie returns to the estate, and the plot takes a surprising detour, unexpectedly full of life. Coming right after an exhilarating sequence in Diana’s childhood home, including a hallucinatory dance and gasp-inducing injury, Hawkins’ overwhelming warmth brings a thrilling whiplash to this scene.

In its final moments, Steven Knight’s script introduces abrupt emotional depth, opening up and soaring into exhilarating territory. Despite its previously gruesome and intense imagery, the film’s sudden switch to euphoria feels completely earned, evidence that Larraín can pull off the tricky tonal balance that the viewer did not realize he was reaching for. Spencer therefore only settles into itself at its very end: instead of a eulogy of her death, it reveals itself to be a celebration of her life.


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