Trapped in a beautifully ornate cage with no semblance of control, Pablo Larrain’s feature Spencer is a strikingly emotional drama movie based on the real-life tragedy of Princess Diana. However, even those familiar with the story of Diana will still find themselves taken aback by Larrain’s vision and Kristen Stewart’s powerful performance.
A reimagining of a turbulent Christmas for The Princess of Wales, the film works as an investigation into the mentality of a woman struggling to survive a patriarchal system full of double standards. Spencer isn’t a historically accurate portrayal of Princess Diana’s story, but instead is an in-depth look into her mind during a certain period of her life.
If you are after a traditional biopic detailing a life from birth to death, or seeing the build-up to her marriage – like in the Netflix TV series The Crown – this, unfortunately, may not be the film for you. Spencer is set purely during a single weekend in 1991, focusing on a moment in time for Diana that explores her emotional turmoil as her husband’s affair and relationship with the royals becomes increasingly strained and toxic.
After getting lost in the countryside where she grew up, Diana is late to the annual Christmas gathering at the British monarch’s lavish manor house, which stands as a beautiful relic from the past – oppressively so. Despite knowing about her husband’s infidelities, Diana puts on a brave face for her sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry).
However, Diana soon finds herself under the constant scrutiny of Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), and completely alone. As isolation, anxiety, and depression take hold, we see the princess begin to experience vivid dreams and witness her being haunted by ghosts of beheaded queens of the past.
Pablo Larrain’s Spencer follows the filmmaker’s trend of bringing emotionally raw and focused portrayals of notable figures from history to life. Previously, we have seen him take on the story of Jackie Kennedy and Pablo Neruda, so it makes sense that he’d try his hand at the Princess of Wales too. However, in Spencer, Larrain exceeds expectations, as he experiments with surreal narrative elements and ultimately gives us a striking Diana story that we’ve never seen before.
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Written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), this take on Diana is pure gothic cinema. The feature is packed with the typical markings of the genre that we all know and love. There is a beautiful woman trapped in an elaborate mansion, misty dream sequences that blend with reality, and plenty of plot points relating to obsession and interpersonal battles for control.
However, Knight also successfully subverts gothic tropes – that usually treat its central female figures in a problematic light – by granting power back to Diana throughout the script. Although we see her pain and struggles, we never see a damsel in distress – just a proactive woman who refuses to be a sacrificial lamb in the wake of her husband’s betrayal.
Similarly, it is refreshing to see a Diana story that doesn’t attempt to pack her life in the space of two hours. Instead, we witness a plot that is incredibly human and tragically relatable. Spencer successfully breaks the mythos of the royal family and celebrity, showing Diana as a woman, a mother, and betrayed wife first and foremost – not an unreachable princess or public figure continually surrounded by paparazzi, as you’d expect.
The complexity in Knight’s writing and Larrian’s direction is perfectly captured by Kristen Stewart, who brings a raw and revealing performance to the leading role of Diana. Although the British accent can be a bit hit or miss in some places, Stewart completely embodies the character. She manages to turn blunt and on the nose pieces of dialogue into meaningful moments of unbridled emotion.
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The actor truly showcases her talent as we see a delicately vulnerable and raw spectrum of grief that radiates from her facial expressions, movements and cracking voice. With Stewart’s spectacular and total dedication to the role, you can’t help but sympathise with Diana, nor can you look away from her pain – even when the film’s pacing dips.
It must be said, Spencer’s script is a slow burn, and certain emotional beats, such as Diana’s obsession with Anne Boleyn and their connection, are constantly repeated. Dialogue tends to be metaphor heavy and at points on the nose, cheapening the impact and maturity of the overall film. But these narrative fumbles are often overshadowed by the general atmosphere and spectacle of Spencer.
No one can deny that this drama is stunning. The eerie cinematography, the recognisable costumes, and the increasingly unnerving horror movie-esque score from Jonny Greenwood take the feature to the next level, sucking viewers into Diana’s descent.
Here we have a Diana biopic meets a psychological horror, meets a semblance of a ghost story. It is impossible not to appreciate its efforts to break the illusion of fairy tales related to the British monarchy while also offering an in-depth and stylised investigation into the mental toll Diana might have gone through.
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Spencer is an emotionally driven story that focuses on affecting viewers with Stewart’s experience instead of a linear narrative that perfectly mimics reality. It’s fresh, it’ll make your heart hurt, and most importantly, Spencer will leave you feeling a well of conflicting emotions after you see it for the first time.