Diana is always running late. In the opening scenes she is lost on her way to Sandringham, the manor where the royal family gathers every Christmas. It’s a place she knows well, having been born in nearby Park House but finds it unrecognisable as a frantic adult.
We meet Diana towards the end of her marriage to Charles (Jack Farthing), where his affair is out in the open and her eating disorder is common knowledge. She is an unwelcome presence in the family, always disrupting the order of celebration. She arrives late to dinner, disappears to throw up between courses and wears her assigned outfits in the wrong order.
Spencer is shot as a tragic fable, the impeding doom in every frame. Written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), it isn’t afraid to hold a mirror up to the ridiculous pretence that this group of dented humans represent the heart and soul of an entire nation and its history.
“You have to be able to make your body do things you hate, for the good of the country,” Charles tells his wife. Diana’s issue is that she wants her public and her private persona to be the same. The reason she was the people’s princess is the reason she is struggling behind palace doors. Although every room she is in she is met with whispers about her mental health, the script argues that she is perhaps too sane and reasonable to cope with the media blitz.
Spencer is refreshingly not about the royals. They are bland and tightly wound cardboard cut-outs in the background. The supporting cast that matters are all staff, Diana appears to better connect to them. She speaks to them more like colleagues than staff that work beneath her. Sally Hawkins has a few standout scenes as Maggie, Diana’s trusted dresser and confidant. She is a warm face amongst the cold corridors of Sandringham. Sean Harris is in control of the kitchen staff, running a tight ship like he’s about to go to war using lobster and souffle. Timothy Spall plays the fictional Alistair Gregory, a pursed-lip ex-major whose whole role is to keep the press out and keep Diana in check. Gregory is the villain of the tale, appearing out of thin air to keep her in check. As the eyes and ears of the royals, he treats her like a misbehaving wild animal that should be tamed.
Spencer is less a straightforward biopic and more an arthouse horror of a once bright young woman cracking under the pressure of fame and royalty. Haunted by Anne Boleyn (played by Amy Manson), who appears to offer sympathies and warnings. Boleyn was accused of adultery and beheaded so Henry VIII could re-marry, so it’s not just the distant bloodline Diana believes connect the two royals. Sandringham is shot like the Overlook in The Shining, unnaturally proportioned with never ending hallways and long staircases. We start to wonder what is real and what is in the imagination of our protagonist.
Jonny Greenwood’s score opens as classically British and then morphs into an unnerving symphony that is better suited to a psychological horror than a royal biopic. Cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) captures Diana with intrusive close-ups, Stewart recreating Diana’s doe eyes. The contrast of the exacting movements of servants and Diana’s freefall is more like a final girl running from their killer, than a princess dining with her in-laws.
The costume work by icon Jacqueline Durran covers a greatest-hits of Diana’s most-loved outfits, with an array of fashions that speaks toward her mental state. The camera often behind the princess, centring in on her ball gown as it fans out behind her as she bends over the porcelain to throw up.
Spencer would be nothing without Kristen Stewart’s performance. It’s the perfect blend of the real Diana and Larraín’s mythologized version of her. Stewart actualizes Diana’s nervousness, her high-strung reactions to those around her, and the familiar tip of the head. The most outstanding part of her performance is the pitch perfect voice. You forget you’re watching the American actress and completely buy into the fact that she is The Princess of Wales. The portrayal of the other real-life figures around her, and less accurate but it doesn’t matter. Stella Gonet’s understated portrayal as the Queen lacking many of the mannerisms you’d expect, a purposeful choice from the director.
Stewart is especially warm when she gets to spend quiet time with William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). The two young princes don’t understand why they can’t be normal and are so dictated by outdated traditions. They long for a life without rules, a scene especially heart-breaking considering Harry’s recent exit from the royal bubble.
Spencer works well as a sister film to Jackie, creating a surreal portrayal of a public figure during one of their most harrowing yet public moments of their life. Spencer isn’t an easy watch, nor will it appease fans of The Crown who want a standard retelling of real-life events. It unashamedly depicts a real situation through a pretentious arthouse lens. Perhaps the film needed less wafting through corridors, or one less scene of Diana clutching a toilet pre-dessert. Larraín isn’t concerned with showcasing the events we all know, instead creating a layered portrait and finding the truths in both her public and private persona.
Spencer is out in cinemas now
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy