With Spencer, Gemma Creagh crowns this highly-anticipated character study of Princess Diana.
The words “a fable from a true tragedy” open Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, his much lauded depiction of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart). Glamorously dressed and wearing designer shades, we first see “the people’s princess” driving her sleek convertible through the English countryside, a visual not dissimilar to that of a vintage perfume ad. Even though she’s back in Norfolk, the area she grew up in, she’s completely lost. In her quest for directions, she enters a working-class chip shop, and immediately dons a performative, demure affectation: her public face.
After a sprint through a field to retrieve what she claims is her father’s old jacket from a scarecrow, Diana finally arrives at her destination, the Queen’s extravagant Sandringham House. Barely in the door, Diana is greeted by one of the more sinister staff members, Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), who subtly berates her, before weighing her like a prize heifer – all in the good name of tradition, of course. When she greets her sons, the eager-to-please William (Jack Nielen) and the forthright young Harry (Freddie Spry), she wears a fun, playful veneer. Having received a generally frosty reception from servants and in-laws alike, Diana’s only positive interaction comes in the form of unexpected fatherly advice from the Head Chef (Darren Harris), and her intense, hushed friendship with her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) – which is cut short when Maggie is abruptly removed from Diana’s service.
The spectre of Diana’s husband, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) looms both large and distant. Initially the couple maintain little contact bar some judgy, regal side-eye. However whatever tentative ceasefire existed between the estranged spouses is broken when Charles gives Diana the same gift as his mistress Camilla: a Marge Simpson-esque set of pearls. Weighed down under the oppressive rituals of the family, Diana’s grip on reality starts to loosen, and she envisages the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) haunting her. It’s at this point that the experimental notes take hold of the film and Diana’s behaviour gets more and more erratic.
Given the singular main location, the reliance on dialogue and various characters delivering expositional monologues, there’s a distinctly theatrical style to Steven Knight’s writing. Anyone who remembers his intense drama Locke knows this can prove gipping, however, in this instance, it doesn’t quite gel with arthouse elements that become heightened towards Spencer’s crescendo, and subsequently these feel off against the classic, filmic style of footage. This is by no means a slur against the visual aspects of this film, as they are undeniably beautiful. The uncomfortably geometric framing of certain shots work wonders in capturing the grotesque opulence of the venue in question. The production design and costume work capture the essence and elegance of the era, truly paying homage to one of the most notable style icons of her generation. Much like in the Netflix series, The Crown, there’s a layer of culpability for Diana’s struggles placed on the institution of the Royal Family – yet Spencer is rather more direct in its implications.
However, what Spencer does well is shine a light on the harsh lived experience of a young mother struggling to keep it together, while every aspect of her world is monitored and controlled – an important lesson that unfortunately resonates more than ever in a digital age. This film reminds us how Diana was a sensitive soul suffocating in her gilded cage, and much like Larraín’s Jackie makes a concerted effort to look at the gendered pressures projected on to these women and their effects. With the camera and – let’s face it, the film itself – resting squarely on Stewart, she not only delivers, but dazzles. She channels the pain and warmth of a woman pushed to the edge, alienated by her fame, and yet still managing to find humanity and strength in those small moments.
Timing wise, much has changed since this story was commissioned. In the past two years, the nature of the pandemic teamed with the present housing crisis, has caused economic rifts in society to grow even further, highlighting inequality on a huge scale, all while our neighbours across the channel feel the deep and far reaching impact of Brexit. It will be interesting to see how this film will be received, and if there will be the same level of empathy to watch someone suffer in luxury on the taxpayers dime across all generations. But then who isn’t a sucker for a story about a traumatised princess?
Overall, Spencer is a beautifully crafted and introspective look at Diana, and at the very least certainly serves its purpose as a claustrophobic character study.
Spencer is in cinemas from 5th November 2021.