Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, and Sally Hawkins
Spencer is a fictional telling of what could have happened at the Royal Christmas in 1991. The film opens with the description ‘a fable of a tragedy’, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Director, Pablo Larraín previously directed Jackie, another biopic of an important woman in modern history. Spencer couldn’t be further from Jackie. Instead of attempting to be an accurate portrayal of Diana’s life, the film instead tries to present what could have been going through her mind. People going into this thinking they will get a historical portrayal of the People’s Princess may be disappointed, this isn’t The Crown, in fact it’s closer to a psychological horror than a biopic.
The film centres around the three days stay at Sandringham House for Christmas 1991. Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is late, being the last person to arrive, breaking the tradition of the Queen being the last person to arrive at the estate. From then on Diana is being constantly watched, with the media circling her at every opportunity. Diana is currently separating from Prince Charles, with this being the last Christmas she will spend at Sandringham.
Kristen Stewart is the heart and soul of this film. Her performance is simply breath-taking. You forget that you are watching Stewart as soon as she arrives on screen. She completely inhabits Princess Diana, capturing her mannerisms and speech patterns. Stewart should be getting nominations and awards from every direction when awards season comes around early next year. This is her best role to date and really shows how good of an actor she is. The entire film comfortably rests on her performance.
The other striking thing about the film is that it at time feels like a psychological horror film. Spencer doesn’t try to be historically accurate at all and instead explores the pressure that was on Princess Diana at the time, witnessing Prince Charles’s affair and their eventually separation, the expectations from the rest of the Royal Family and the constant hounding from the press. Combined they push Diana to the edge. The Royal Family are painted almost as villains in the film, with their silent judgement. Diana is convinced that they are conspiring against her, at one point asking the chef ‘will they kill me, do you think?’. It never goes off the rails or becomes scary, but there is an unsettling atmosphere running throughout.
She’s reading a book about Anne Boleyn, who she is related to, and sees a kindred soul within her. Anne Boleyn was killed under the suspicion that she was having an affair, when it was actually her husband, Henry VIII who was cheating on her. Diana sees Boleyn as a mirror image of her and sees her story as a warning about what’s to come. It’s playing into the conspiracy theories that have gone around since Diana’s death in 1997, while at the same time creating a strange atmosphere of suspense and terror. At points Boleyn speaks to Diana, both through dreams and at one point as a ghost. Diana’s mind is breaking under the pressure on her life.
There is a scene late in the film, where Diana escapes the confines of Christmas, and goes back to her childhood home, which is now falling apart and dangerous. It’s dark and creaky, with the wood decaying around her. It feels very close to a haunted house, literally. Throughout the entire film is a hauntingly beautiful score from Jonny Greenwood. It screeches over the rest of the film, creating a genuine sense of dread, especially since we all know how the true story ends. It leaves you with a sickly feeling in your stomach.
Spencer throws away any notion of being true to the actual events, right from the opening moments. It is completely fictional. Instead the film captures the sense of impending doom as Diana’s marriage has fallen apart, and the rest of her life is left in shatters. There are moments of true sorrow with Diana’s struggle with bulimia and self-harm all overcoated with an unnerving atmosphere. Director Pablo Larraín has created something very unique and chilling.
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