*This article contains mention of certain moments and themes from Spencer (2021) but is mostly spoiler free and safe to read for someone who has yet to see the film.
Arriving five years after director Pablo Larrain masterfully re-imagined the story of Jackie Kennedy and the aftermath of the ‘fall of camelot’, he returns again to tackle the story of an iconic woman in history, who’s story is also steeped in just as much legend as it is fact. It feels fitting then that Larrain is the one to tell Diana’s cinematic story in his own unique way, evident right away as the film open with the slide “a fable based on a true tragedy”.
Spencer takes place over three days at Sandringham Estate: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day. It tracks Diana struggling to maintain her clarity of mind in the middle of a media storm, with no help from ‘the family’. She is at the end of her tether and is rebelling against ‘the crown’ and all the traditions and restrictions that come with it.
This creates perfectly fertile ground for Larrain to build a focused character study around Diana, complete with her beautiful interactions with her children, her desire to fight the system, and disturbing explorations of her eating disorder and self harm.
Instead of being a traditional biopic though, Spencer plays out like a ghost story, a haunted house film set within Sandringham. The royal family barely speak or even appear in focus throughout the film, just existing as malignant presences weighing down on our protagonist. They are ever present, it doesn’t matter who specifically they are, because they are interchangeable throughout the centuries. It is the institution that matters above all else and that is what haunts Diana through the halls of Sandringham. “There is no future here, past and present are the same” Diana explains at one stage.
Everywhere you turn in that grand house there are paintings of royals from eras gone by, still stalking the walls and making their presence known. The dust in those empty rooms still containing the fragments from rulers long ago. In particular, Diana is haunted by visions of Anne Boleyn through the film, and the parallels between the two are obvious, and Boleyn because a literal character in the film at key moments. Diana wonders aloud at one stage “will they kill me” just like Henry did to Anne all those years ago.
As well as the ghost story being told, Larrain also focuses in on Diana being trapped. She is constantly told to close her curtains when changing, and even has her curtains sewn together in one particularly disturbing moment. In order to flee the captivity she is drawn across the foggy fields to Park House, her childhood home that is also on the Sandringham estate. Like a moth to a flame, Diana craves for the feelings of home and security that this old house brings her.
There are absolutely parts of the film that don’t work, with a clunky script being the main issue. The opening 30 minutes are very slow and set the table for what’s the come, and the final 10 minutes are jarring and really don’t work within the context of the film, leaving a strange feeling as you leave the cinema.
Whilst the dialogue is compelling and smart, some of the thematic devices and plot points feel a bit on the nose or rushed, and it can take you out of the film in certain moments. The film also lacks that energy and real sense of urgency that ‘Jackie’ had, and i’m not sure whether that is a fault of the film or just because we very recently saw another version of this story on netflix’s ‘The Crown’.
However, it is shot and directed gorgeously and with such knowing precision. You will struggle to find a more beautiful film all year. As for the score, Johnny Greenwood has not only created one of the years best scores, but the score is used so effectively that it almost creates for an inner monologue, being able to tell us exactly what Diana is thinking and feeling at any given moment.
Much of the plaudits for Spencer have focused on its leading lady and rightfully so, as Kristen Stewart is magnificent here. She never ‘becomes Diana’ in the way you may hope from this type of film, as you’re always very aware you’re watching Kristen Stewart, but for this film, it works.
It adds to the almost otherworldly feel of the film, you aren’t watching a documentary retelling of Diana’s life, you’re watching an almost dark fairytale interpretation of it, so it feels right that it should be clear all the time that it isn’t the real Diana you are seeing. Stewart may win an Oscar for this role and it would be really deserved. She shines in the emotional moments, creating a real character full of insecurity, trauma, and deep down, kindness.
Spencer is far from a perfect film, with some glaring flaws (most which lie with the script), but many of the most interesting things in life are imperfect, and Spencer is something people will likely be talking about long after it is released into the world. Much like it’s subject, the film will become something that everyone who sees it has a strong opinion on and talks about it for time to come.
Rating = 4/5