Spencer movie review: Kristen Stewart captivates as Princess Diana in hauntingly daring biopic
Spencer is the cinematic equivalent of a memoir, punctuated with flights of gorgeously-imagined fantasy, all-consuming metaphors, and stylish assertions of selfhood.
castKristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins
The opening title card of Pablo Larrain’s ambitious and accomplished Spencer describes it as “A fable from a true tragedy” — an interesting way of acknowledging that the film isn’t entirely historically accurate. That isn’t good news if you’re setting out to make a biopic about one of the most popular figures in history. And on paper, the film’s goals match that of a biopic: it remains invested in confronting the harsh truths of a tragic lived-in experience.
But on screen, Spencer, which chronicles the mental disintegration of Diana, the late Princess of Wales during Christmas celebrations in 1991, is committedly anti-biopic. Larrain and writer Stephen Knight use the facts that surround Diana’s fraught life just as an accessory for the narrative. That is to say, Spencer is the kind of movie about Diana that eschews asking “Who was she?” in favour of examining the emotional devastations that came with being stripped of any agency as a member of the royal family. In that, the film is consumed with conveying itself solely through the language of feelings, especially the ones that aren’t usually written down in history as fact. The approach may not present the whole truth but it does arrive at some form of truth-telling.
That means Spencer — ultimately a portrait of a woman losing control over her identity and body under the ruthless authoritarianship of British monarchy — is simultaneously a horror film, a hostage thriller, a social satire, a psychological character study, a war drama, and a love story between a mother and her two sons. It is the cinematic equivalent of a memoir, punctuated with flights of gorgeously-imagined fantasy, all-consuming metaphors, and stylish assertions of selfhood. The result is an imaginative, elastic, and daring account that continues to captivate even when it tends to belabor its point.
There’s not much by way of plot in Spencer more than its objective to take viewers inside Diana’s harrowed mind against the backdrop of a loveless marriage, immense public scrutiny, and the paralysing demands of royal role-playing. Knight’s screenplay doesn’t bother itself with joining any dots, assuming instead that viewers are well aware of the beginning and the end of Diana’s story as it proceeds to vividly chart just the middle (for instance, the film is set a year before Prince Charles and Diana separate but the film never makes a mention of the impending doom).
Right from its ominous opening sequence, Spencer makes it evident that Diana is a misfit in the life that she finds to be her own. The first time we see Diana (a mesmerising Kristen Stewart), she is seemingly lost in the countryside, driving a car, sans any security detail. The remaining members of the royal family, including her indifferent husband and two charming sons, have already made their way to Sandringham, the country retreat of the Queen for the three-day Christmas celebrations. Diana is nowhere close. The distance between the royal family and her is both literal and metaphorical. And by the end of these tumultuous three days, a period that will be marked by domestic turbulence and life-threatening hallucinations, causing a bulimic Diana to spiral deeper into a breakdown, that distance will have inevitably formed a crack between both parties.
In many ways, Spencer argues that to know Diana, it’s crucial to know the turbulence in her mind in these three excruciating days spread out between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. An undercurrent of dread permeates every frame in the film.
There’s pressures and humiliations stacked up against her from every way: There’s the appearances that she has to keep up, down to having elaborate outfits (they’re marked POW for Princess of Wales although it can just as easily mean Prisoner of War) picked out for her for every meal and photo-op. There’s her husband’s open display of infidelity and most of all, there’s the endless surveillance that clouds every minute of her life. She’s rarely left alone or afforded a moment of peace — there’s a knock on the door even when she’s vomiting her food out and the prying is rarely out of concern. Her presence is never requested, always demanded. On her part, Diana retaliates in small ways: arriving late for a photo-op, running away midway through dinner, or not showing up at all.
In between these public highlights where her presence is never requested, rather demanded, Spencer demonstrates the extent to which Diana feels like an uninvited guest in her own life, as if she’s watching her own life pass by in front of her. The film masterfully underpins her anxieties visually and sonically. There’s the visions that she has of Anne Boleyn — Henry VII’s second wife who was beheaded so her husband could take a new wife — convinced that she will mirror her fate. The feverish dream-like sequence of her eating pea soup drenched in the pearls from her necklace. Or the imagery of her lying hunched over the toilet in her white Chanel dress alone.
I found the brief sequence with the paparazzi chilling even though it’s a scene that does so little — the camera zooms in on her uncomfortable face as innumerable cameras compete to get a shot of her. We see these merciless cameras just once but while the camera stays on her face; we keep hearing the clicking sounds of camera shutters that get quicker with every passing second. An eternity seems to pass in that one moment.
In fact, Claire Manthon’s roving camera surveys Stewart’s Diana breathlessly, closing up on her without notice and framing her to record her escalating state of isolation and loneliness. The only moments of intimacy present in the film are scenes that involve Diana and her two sons, who remain as devoted to her as she remains to asserting her identity in the face of the royal clampdown. Even the film’s interplay with light and darkness reinforces her state of mind: when Diana is out with her only friend or driving on her own, she is bathed in sunlight. But when she is inside the estate reduced to a robotic existence, the screen suddenly turns dark and gloomy.
There’s much to seek out in Spencer, despite the film’s propensity to heighten drama with its blunt dialogue or its overdone metaphors, especially Stewart’s mercurial turn that oscillates between vulnerability and inscrutability. The accent is uneven in place, but Stewart’s range is pitch-perfect — the actress replicates the Princess of Wales’ mannerisms, body language, and famous head tilt with a searing intensity.
Still, it’s her face that stores a lifetime of worries and hope that is particularly effective as well as devastating. Take for instance, an affecting montage in which Stewart dances her way through the pieces of her life, a moment where past and present intersect to offer her the only glimpse of a possible future. It’s to Stewart’s credit that even when the film primes Diana up as an object of pity, her performance is grounded enough to never become the subject of it. Aiding her layered portrayal is Johnny Greenwood’s haunting, melancholic score that masterfully amplifies and foreshadows the storms coming her way.
There’s a meta-moment toward the end of the film where Stewart as Diana ponders over how the world will write about her in the future. “The more time passes, the fewer words they use,” she says sadly. Ofcourse, Diana doesn’t know that in the moment but today, in the future, the Princess of Wales has become something of a pop-culture cottage industry — spawning innumerable books, opinion pieces, movies, shows, and documentaries that enthusiastically seek to either recount the tragedy of her life or uncover the mystery behind her motivations. Evidently, Spencer falls into the category: it writes about Diana, it mythologises her and confronts her inadequacies. But most of all, it does something that most other records forget: Spencer remembers to hear Diana out without obscuring the noise around her very existence.
Rating: * * * *
Poulomi Das is a film and culture writer, critic, and programmer. Follow more of her writing on Twitter.
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