2021, R, 111 mins.
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana / Sean Harris as Chief Darren / Jack Farthing as Prince Charles / Sally Hawkins as Maggie / Timothy Spall as Major Gregory / Amy Manson as Anne BoleynDirected by Pablo Larraín / Written by Steven Knight
Pablo Larrain's SPENCER is a fact based inspired drama that tells a fictionalized account of Princess Diana's choice to finally break things off with her equally famous husband back in the early 1990s during a psychologically hellish three-day period for her.
This seems like a
fitting companion piece to Larrain's own 2016 film JACKIE,
which chronicled another famous woman of influence in Jacqueline Kennedy
during the post-JFK assassination era, a time when she too was battling
enormous stresses from all possible angles.
In many respects, both JACKIE and SPENCER deal with historical
figures and their respective fragile mindsets when confronting uncertain
futures, and all while feeling suffocated by the sheer societal and
political demands being placed on them.
Both films, though, kind of suffer from the same issues in terms of
their avant garde approaches to the material and their underlining subject
matter, which has the negative side effect of making these celebrated
figures come off as more abstract ciphers than relatable people.
SPENCER is a sometimes frustratingly idiosyncratic in terms of both
Larrain's creative choices and its lead performance (which I'll get to
The screenplay (from the usually assured Stephen Knight, who penned EASTERN PROMISES and wrote and directed one of the best one-man minimalist dramas of recent memory in LOCKE) opens in December of 1991 during a time when the Royal Family is about ready to gather and celebrate Christmas at Queen Elizabeth's (Stella Gonet) country side estate. Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) becomes hopelessly lost on route, despite her being in the vicinity of the area that she actually grew up in pre-royalty. Her husband in Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is getting dutifully prepared for the festivities to come, whereas his aloof and distant wife in Diana seems to have had all of the passionate desire to live the life of a royal zapped right out of her. She finds some solace in being reunited with her loving sons in William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) and tries to muster up the internal fortitude to carry on with her family's holiday traditions, but she simply yearns to break completely free from them (that, and the fact that her hubbie is having an affair taints the whole evening to come, not to mention the family's future). Diana's mental health begins to steadily unravel, leaving her is constant agitated states. Hell, she even begins to hallucinate that she's seeing the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) herself, whom you may or may not recall was the once wife of Henry the VIII that eventually had her head chopped off so that the latter could marry a mistress.
Man, talk about
on the nose visual metaphors!
If there are a
few things that SPENCER does right then it would be that Larrain is pretty
on point here when it comes to relaying the inherent and oftentimes
traumatizing stresses that royal life had on Diana herself.
One of the more damning aspects of the story is how this
prestigious and all powerful family essentially throws Diana's mental
health to the curb and instead uses her as a puppet for good will
publicity appearances. This
is the primary source of Diana's deep depression, who feels trapped on a
daily basis by her responsibilities to her title and loyalty to her
family, which will be put through the ringer in the future with Charles'
infidelity and scandal to come. I
don't think, though, that SPENCER emerges as a scathing criticism of the
Royal Family members, nor does the film pettily attack their nature.
No, the Queen and her entourage as portrayed more as cold and
unsympathetic than they are as purely vindictive minded power players.
They're holding up centuries worth of tradition and will do so
using any means necessary, even if that means Diana is put through the
emotional gambit as a result.
somewhat refreshing that SPENCER is not - as perhaps some might be falsely
expecting going in - an obligatory biopic of Diana herself and her time
with the family. This is not a thorough examination of the full life and
times of the Princess of Wales, but rather a more insular and focused
piece that hones in on a brief period of this woman's high pressured time
within her role and six years before her untimely death.
It's noteworthy that Larrain and Knight open their film with a
title card that labels their film as a "fable," mostly because
they're not aiming for making SPENCER a historical document nor a
realistic account, per se, of this time in Diana's life.
The film is really about cementing us within Diana's ever
escalating disillusionment and misery and all of the limitless strains of
this life. SPENCER submerges
us at a key point in the Royal Family's existence when one key marriage
was beginning to crack under the weight of Charles' adulterous ways and
how Diana desperately tried to emancipate herself from all of this.
There are some interesting subplots and supporting characters tied
in, like how Diana finds escape in the form of her friendship with Maggie
(Sally Hawkins), one of her staff and loyal confidants that serves as a
brief conduit out of the rigors of antagonistic paparazzi photographers
and constantly being in the public eye with her family.
Unfortunately, these moments are fleeting; Diana is always required
to be "on" at a moment's notice as required by her title and
stature as a royal.
Here's the main
problem, though, with SPENCER: It's sometimes so esoterically weird (often
to alienating distraction) with its very choices in telling this story
that I found it too impenetrably cold to embrace at times.
Larrain deserves kudos for staving off tired status quo conventions
for these types of dramas, but more often that not her film awkwardly
veers from one divergent tone to the next...sometimes fluidly...sometimes
without any rhyme or reason. Some
scenes play like body disturbance horror (see one key dinner sequence
depicting Diana munching down on something that should never be munched
down on) and then they segue into other scenes that are more dramatically
grounded...only to be followed up by other sequences that are dreamlike
and approaching camp in depicting the fragility of Diana's mindset.
All of this makes for an exceedingly mixed and inconsistent bag for
me, which is too bad. SPENCER
is handsomely produced, beautifully shot via Claire Mathon's lens, and
contains a hauntingly chilling score by Jonny Greenwood that strikes more
of a raw nerve as the narrative progresses.
I appreciated the whole artifice of this film more than I did the
film itself. When the film
ended I felt emotionally numb. Maybe that was the point, but it doesn't necessarily make for