By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/21/21 – Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021) is self-billed from the outset as “a fable from a true tragedy,” a biopic that’s equal parts pitch-black domestic dramedy and outright horror. Written by Steven Knight, Spencer is based on the later years of the marriage of Diana, Princess of Wales and Charles, Prince of Wales. It is a heightened look at three days in the life of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart), née Diana Frances Spencer, at the end of 1992, around the time of the real-life announcement of her separation from her husband, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). On Christmas Eve, the royal family gathers at Sandringham Estate to celebrate the holidays – everyone, that is, except for Diana. With her marriage publicly on the rocks, she decides to make the drive herself and, even though she grew up in this area of Norfolk, promptly gets lost in the winding rural roads near the estate, seemingly as a result of her anxiety about joining the rest of the clan. It’s only when she spots the scarecrow on her childhood home’s property that Diana gets her bearings (“How can I get lost where I used to play?” she muses), the first of many indications that the princess longs for the simpler days of her youth.
Once at the estate, Diana is met with a chilly reception, and audiences with on-the-nose dialogue. “It’s always cold in here,” she complains to her young boys, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), the only two people who actually seem happy to see her. Charles is nowhere to be found and Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), who’s been brought in to keep the swarming press at bay, seems none too pleased with her tardiness.
Larraín presents Diana as a woman keenly aware of the cage in which she’s been trapped from a young age. When the blinds in her bedroom are shut to shield her from the paparazzi, the grand English manor suddenly feels like a prison. The moment, like many in Spencer, readily conjures a paranoia-suffused atmosphere of fear for what might happen at any moment.
Larraín, who made a name for himself beginning with Tony Manero (2008) as a nervy chronicler of the social horrors of Pinochet’s Chile, is an expert at playing truth for dramatic effect. As he did in Jackie (2016), Larraín focuses so tightly on his main character, and to such claustrophobic effect, that it never feels less than subjective and impressionistic as the Princess of Wales roams the cavernous hallways and bedrooms of Sandringham Estate, desperate to avoid contact with the rest of the guests.
Spencer does not cover Diana’s tragic death and instead “examines the fraying of the relationship with her husband, and her ferocious love for her sons Prince William and Prince Harry,” Pablo Larrain has explained. “It’s only three days of her life,” Larraín elaborates about the movie, “and in that very small amount of time, you’re able to get into a wider, bigger perspective of who she was. We all know her fate, what happened to her, and we don’t need to go there. We’ll stay in this more intimate space where she could express where she wants to go and who she wants to be.”
Spencer is haunted by doom, and it almost takes on the tenor of a fright flick once the celebrations get into full swing. Finding a conspicuously placed book on Anne Boleyn in her bedroom upon her arrival, Diana starts seeing visions of the beheaded queen (Amy Manson) following her around the estate. With Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith) also milling about with her eye unsubtly on Charles, Diana reverts to an almost childlike state, defying the royal family’s strict holiday schedule and making off-color remarks to her put-upon maids. Eventually, she makes her way to her dilapidated former childhood home in the night, tiptoeing across the hazardous floorboards in a beautiful evening gown while memories of her past hauntingly materialize around her. “Here, there is no future,” Diana tells her children earlier in the film, “and past and present are the same thing.”
One might complain Larraín is too interested in playing up the madness card at the end of the film. There’s a tinge of exploitation to a scene in which an especially fragile Diana, late for Christmas dinner, paces the hallways and screams over and over to the maid trailing behind her: “Tell them I’m not well!” In real life, Diana admitted to harming herself, and Spencer shows her doing so, but by shoehorning such moments into what largely plays out as a fictionalized impression of the princess’s life. “I’m a magnet for madness,” Diana declares at one point, “Other people’s madness.”
It’s a testament to Stewart’s empathetic performance that such qualms almost feel irrelevant. Her embodiment of Diana is less an act of imitation than one of inspiration and connection, and she neither flaunts her process nor invites our pity for the princess. Given Stewart’s own contentious relationship with the press – namely the way that she bore the brunt of a well-publicized cheating scandal – you never doubt her understanding of the mounting pressure that Diana faced to act in a way that wouldn’t ruffle any feathers.
Talking to In Style magazine while playing the role of Diana, Stewart said, “I think there is sort of an unbridled, open, and intimate exchange that she had with the public that was so striking for people that were used to a sort of different face to the royal family. That’s not something I grew up with. I always thought this person was stolen from us and I always had a curiosity about her. Every day that I unfold this story the more emotionally invested I get.” Upon release of the trailer, it is believed that the film will thrust Kristen Stewart into the Oscar race for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Spencer had its world premiere in competition at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on September 3, 2021, followed by screenings at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival the same month. Distributed by Neon, the film has been playing in theatres in the United States since November 5, 2021.