Movie Review: Spencer

Hell is being a member of the royal family, according to this claustrophobic Princess Diana biopic.

In romance films, the heroine marries the prince and lives happily ever after. In Spencer, this is the beginning of her literal nightmare.

Spencer is not the standard Princess Diana biopic. We don’t see her being courted by Prince Charles, nor do we see her elaborate wedding, where she blushed and trembled and wowed a country with her innocence and beauty. We don’t, mercifully, see how she died. Instead, director Pablo Larrain chooses to focus on three grueling and oppressive days—Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day—at the Sandringham estate, where the royal family took holidays. In a cruel bit of a fate, Sandringham is right across the meadow from the home where Diana (Kristen Stewart) grew up—her old house is now boarded up and sitting empty, save for the memories. She remembers a happy childhood, with a lot of love and warmth. Now she feels trapped in a kind of hell.

Larrain is vague about the dates, but this is clearly right before Diana left Charles (Jack Farthing). She already knows about Charles’ mistress and true love Camilla Parker Bowles. In fact, to add insult to injury, Charles has given both Diana and Camilla the exact same string of pearls. In one gruesome scene, Diana imagines flinging the pearls off her neck and swallowing them whole after they drop into her soup.

Diana hates everything about her constricted life. She hates the fact that every outfit is planned out. She hates being constantly tended to. She hates the obsessive cleaving to tradition. She moans about the fact that there is no “future tense” in the royal life. “Here, past and present are the same thing,” she says. There is no spontaneity, no room for joy, for emotions, to be one’s self.

“You have to make your body do things that you hate,” says Charles tersely. At this point, that means being in the same room together.

Of course, there is at least one thing Diana loves with all her heart and that’s her two sons, William and Harry. She sneaks into their room at night and giggles and violates the strict rules and tries to give them some sense of normalcy. But even they can see what pain she’s in.

Stewart is excellent as Diana. In a way, it’s a perfect part for her. Stewart has often played a world-weary, sulking, eye-rolling ingenue who chafes against authority. This is that kind of role dialed up to eleven. But there is an adult’s bitterness and knowingness that gives her Diana more gravitas than Stewart’s previous characters. What’s more, especially in some of Diana’s more iconic outfits (she had many), she really does look like her, especially as shot by cinematographer Claire Mathon, who often bathes her in golden light. And, at least to this Yank’s ears, Stewart nails the accent.

Spencer is claustrophobic, by design. All dark halls and thick curtains and airless rooms. Diana really is trapped in a haunted house—she keeps seeing visions of Anne Boleyn (who was falsely accused of adultery and beheaded by King Henry VIII, you’ll recall). Jonny Greenwood’s score, some classical music, but mostly tetchy avant-garde jazz, adds to the sense of impending doom.

At times, the directing is a bit too claustrophobic for my taste. What’s more, Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight never met a metaphor they didn’t love. Wild horses (bucking against captivity), pheasants (bred simply to be hunted and killed), curtains (stapled closed to cut off the real world), pearls (representing appearance vs. reality), currency (both what Diana feels like and where a likeness of her face may one day reside)—are all bathed in double meaning. It’s a metaphorapalooza!

The whole thing might be impossibly oppressive were it not for those few scenes with her boys and, especially, her scenes with her favorite lady-in-waiting, Maggie (an excellent Sally Hawkins). Maggie is the only person she can confide in. The only person she can “keep it real” with. And she values her beyond all measure. Toward the end of the film, the two women escape to the beach and are able to briefly laugh and frolic. It’s an extreme relief to see Diana smile.

She needs it—and at that point, so do we.


Spencer is now playing at the Charles Theatre and other local theaters.