It’s only fitting that Jackie director Pablo Larraín would go on to direct Spencer, a biographical drama based around a moment in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. Casting Kristen Stewart not only feels like an of-the-moment choice but a fitting one, given the parallels between the two when it comes to the intense focus the media has had on their lives. Less obvious, however, was the choice to essentially turn this story written by Steven Knight into a prestigious gothic horror film. Filmed in moody castles and shot with the intent to hold back on the glamour generally afforded to royals, Spencer is a psychological drama intent on capturing one’s effort to escape the reality of being a well-known princess.
Set during Christmas festivities at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, it is 1991, and the marriage between Princess Diana and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is essentially over. While still legally bound, the two are cold to each other, with Diana putting all of her love and attention towards her two sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). However, despite expectations of the Queen (Stella Gonet), Diana has become less and less enamored with upholding the royal standards and closer to losing her own grip on reality.
Just last week, when writing about Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, it was clear enough to see how Roman Polanski’s Repulsion held a level of influence over that story of a woman in psychological parrel. The circumstances are not quite as dire for Princess Di, but even with all the white privilege possible comes the concern over the surreal nightmare presented. Diana is entirely trapped by so many forces around her that it’s not surprising to see her believing her life may actually be in jeopardy.
With no real desire to work this story around a traditional plot structure, Larraín and Knight are all in on attempting to capture the way someone’s mind works. The complexities of feeling motivated to go against the grain for the sake of one’s own sanity, let alone feeling stuck in a pool of depression and anxiety caused by a variety of pressures, are handled like a Terrence Malick dream sequence in one moment, and a Kubrickian nightmare in another.
With that being said, how does this amount to a film with discernable, worthwhile qualities? It comes from the sheer effort on display. From a production standpoint, even with the choice to rely on washed-out visuals to better harken back to an older period of film. This choice also deemphasizes the majestic nature of these locations, the food, costumes, etc. And yet, one can still see the work put into bringing all of these elements to life.
Spencer does a lot to keep the audience in a particular headspace. Still, even the film can’t resist showing off certain moments, whether it’s the food preparation handled by Sean Harris as the Royal Head Chef or the elaborate costumes, which feature at least some involvement from Sally Hawkins as the Royal Dresser. While subverting the nature of a biopic and deliberately underselling the lavishness afforded to people living at such a high status, there’s plenty of cinema on display.
It does come at a cost, though. Between the haunting cinematography by Claire Mathon (responsible for the much warmer Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and another incredible score from Jonny Greenwood, I really was taken aback by how much Spencer chooses to fall in line with gothic horror pictures such as The Innocents or Rebecca. Having the film play with the sense of reality only adds to the feeling of disarray being experienced. This is also an important way of noting how crucial a locked-in performance is.
Coming off a series of acclaimed performances in art house films, it’s no wonder awards buzz came early for Stewart with this role. However, regardless of the optics surrounding the reception, there are many challenging aspects to a performance like this. These all feel like opportunities for the star to channel particular frustrations that line up with Diana’s. Noting how the two were hounded by the media, and the intense focus on their relationships, showing the struggles being dealt with came through as intended. Fortunately, that doesn’t merely mean seeing some sort of pure figure amid a pack of wolves.
For all the effort put into reclaiming oneself (anyone would want to with the way Farthing plays Prince Charles), Spencer is not afraid of showing Diana at her lowest either. Despite what she’s fighting against, her actions can put her in the position of acting petulant, let alone selfish. Some of it can be read as justified. A lot of it isn’t.
This is made more evident by the way we see those working on the grounds, with a desire to not only help but show their affection for the princess. The various members of the staff, including Timothy Spall’s fantastic work as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (basically the head of security), all have a clear concern over Diana’s well-being, and it’s interesting to see how the role can bounce back and forth in being antagonistic.
There are issues with Spencer one can spot. The film is nearly two hours and deliberately paced, making the actions of a displeased princess feel somewhat repetitive at times. Lingering in a murky world with little narrative thrust can be trying on the mind. Sure, it’s purposeful, as Larraín wants us to connect with certain agonies before, ideally, coming away with some sense of hope. Still, there’s a lot of sullenness here nonetheless.
Problems aside, I’d still rather watch a lot more biographies interested in the psyches of specific figures, with cinematic ambition to spare over the bland biopics that continue to arrive and receive their share of praise. Suppose Larraín and Knight continue to have these sorts of intentions, let alone other filmmakers that feel a keen eye can be a much stronger benefit to this sort of subject manner. In that case, I only hope Spencer continues to fall in a line that grows longer. In the meantime, this look at the life of Princess Diana may not be an entire summation, but it’s undoubtedly attempting to feel honest, let alone challenging in its imagery.