I wouldn’t go so far as to call “Spencer” tasteless, but it does feel a bit tacky. This “fable of a true tragedy” is a frustratingly abstract, imagined look into Princess Diana’s crumbling psyche, rather than a paint-by-numbers biopic. Director Pablo Larraín has created a stylish film with a very dark and tragic tone, and it’s one that feels certain to divide audiences (and critics, too).
Taking place over three days as the Royal Family convenes to celebrate Christmas at the Queen’s (Stella Gonet) Sandringham Estate, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) are nearing the end of their rapidly deteriorating relationship. The rumors of affairs and their impending divorce are getting out of hand. Paparazzi roam the grounds, trying to catch an exclusive photo of the popular Princess, and the estranged marriage is taking a heavy emotional toll on her mental and physical health. The film imagines what might have happened during this brief Christmastime period, with a focus on Diana’s desire for normalcy and a regular life as the world she’s known is crashing down around her.
Talk about having big shoes to fill. It’s a tough role for Stewart, but she handles the demands with grace and skill. She perfectly captures the mindset of a woman whose marriage is ending due to adultery, balancing the need to keep up appearances for her children while suffering alone with a raging inner turmoil. She’s spot-on terrific in her body language and demeanor, giving one of the best performances of the year.
A big chunk of the screenplay’s focus is on Diana’s relationship with her two sons at the time, including a perceptive William (Jack Nielen) and an innocent Harry (Freddie Spry). It’s a story of motherhood in a sense, and a love for her children that transcends all of her suffocation and suffering.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon captures the feeling well, with a camera that always follows and stays uncomfortably close to the Princess. This cramped proximity lends an intimacy to the story that’s filled with unease, yet allows the audience to experience the same as what Diana may have been at the time.
Larraín gets too arty too often, with moments that are unpleasantly conceptual (like an imagined scene with Ann Boleyn joining Diana at the dinner table) or burdened with too-literal, heavy-handed symbolism (like a pool table scene between Diana and Charles, where she drops an actual black ball, or another where a staircase collapses beneath her feet). It’s annoying, especially when paired with the ill-fitting jazzy original score.
While it feels strange at best and distasteful at worst to create an imaginary version of what may have taken place in Diana’s life, the film raises an interesting dialogue about money, fame, adoration, power, and how they will never be a substitution for true happiness. Overall, the blending of fantasy and reality works, and is especially effective within a limited window of time. “Spencer” is not grand in scope, but in its concept and storytelling.
By: Louisa Moore