Spencer is such a difficult film to categorize and not what many movie fans and Royal watchers will expect. Those looking for a biopic of Princess Diana’s waning time as a member of the British Royal Family will not find it here. The film’s opening indicates this is a fable based on a true story. There’s no better summary of what Spencer sets out to do.
It’s hard to exaggerate just how phenomenal Kristen Stewart is at playing the People’s Princess. The level of unmatched brilliance Stewart reaches is a spectacle on its own. The mannerisms Stewart embodies while playing this role lead to a feeling of palpable anxiety that completely overwhelms the entire movie and makes viewers so sympathetic to her plight as a woman completely out of place in a cold and uncaring institution.
Many previous iterations of Princess Diana have completely removed her agency and portrayed her only in relation to those around her. Whether that was her husband, the Prince of Wales, the rest of the Royal family, or her sons to whom she was devoted, many fictional portrayals of Princess Diana have often failed to show her as an entire person on her own. Stewart, however, fully integrates the many complexities that made Princess Diana who she was.
Spencer also doesn’t shy away from portraying Princess Diana as a human being complete with flaws. In particular, it was commendable that the movie showed a true-to-life glimpse at the relationship she had with her two sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). Although by all accounts she was a doting and exceptionally caring mother, she also by accounts inappropriately relied on her eldest son in particular for emotional support. For context, during the events of the movie William would have been eight years old.
The portrayal of Princess Diana’s eating disorder is incredibly difficult to watch. One particularly unsettling scene involves all guests attending the Royal Christmas gathering at Sandringham being required to weigh themselves on antique scales. This ancient tradition apparently dates back to King Edward VII. Although it’s unclear if this is still a tradition practiced today, it’s particularly horrifying to think that someone like Princess Diana, who lived with bulimia, would be required to partake in this antiquated ritual.
Sally Hawkins’ heartfelt portrayal of royal dresser Maggie brings such warmth and humanity to an otherwise lifeless and colorless setting. Her recognition of Princess Diana’s humanity compels viewers to remember there was a person behind the icon she became. Hawkins’ softness is such a brilliant contrast to the rigidity of the institution she works in. Her characters’ compassion towards Diana is so heart-touching and viewers will no doubt hope that the real-life Princess had someone in her life like Maggie she could depend on.
Director Pablo Larraín approached Spencer as a horror movie, and it was incredibly effective. The audience is left unsettled essentially from beginning to end, never knowing what’s real and what isn’t. Tiny details, including an ominous sign posted in the kitchen proclaiming “Keep Noise to a Minimum They Can Hear You” give the feel of a psychological thriller throughout the entire movie.
Larraín’s choice to draw parallels between Princess Diana and Anne Boelyn was an artistic one that paid off in gorgeous imagery. Amy Manson of Once Upon a Time and Torchwood fame mirrors Kristen Stewart so well, as viewers are asked to consider the similarities between two ill-fated royals married to contemptible royal husbands.
This movie has some of the most hateable men that are played so brilliantly. The first of which is an absolutely stunning performance by Timothy Spall, playing Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, a character as absolutely pompous and distasteful as the name itself sounds. He appears at the most inopportune and unsettling moments. His complete disregard for the humanity and emotions of those in his charge represents the callousness so many have come to associate with British Royalty as an institution. According to Larraín, this character is based on the real-life Royal Air Force administrative officer, David Walker.
The second equally hateable man we see in this movie is Prince Charles, here played by Jack Farthing. He is a completely detestable future King, as he wordlessly greets his children, and either ignores or openly derides his wife. Although the real-life Prince of Wales has often been portrayed as a doting and considerate father, this Charles is chillingly distant and is dismissive of his wife’s concerns, including that that their son is too young to be hunting. The ending moments of the movie give viewers a tiny bit of hope that this Charles had to face his family with a sliver of the level of scrutiny Diana was subjected to.
The little details are what make this movie such an astounding artistic achievement. Kitchen staff operating as a military brigade and dinners eaten in unsettling silence shows a family and an institution so foreign and unintelligible to people outside of their inner realm. People’s cold-eyed stares, wide-eyed surprise, or simply aggressively physically rushing her are all unsettling ways to show how much Princess Diana must have felt incredibly dehumanized through her life in the public eye.
Princess Diana’s iconic sapphire engagement ring is just slightly off, and the use of a jacket belonging to her father contributes to the dreamlike ambiance that seeps through the entire movie. An overly aggressive crowd of reporters and civilians waiting outside of a church and a gigantic portrait of Henry VIII that seems to be all-seeing contribute to this nightmarish, Alice in Wonderland-like atmosphere.
Although not every choice made in this movie will work for everyone, it’s undeniable that Stewart has established herself as an exceptionally talented artist and that she has taken her place among the best actresses to portray one of the most famous women in the world. Spencer is a worthy artistic meditation on the life and struggles of a woman who continues to fascinate and inspire the imagination.
Spencer is in theatres now.