Fueled by atmosphere and a masterful performance by Kristen Stewart, Pablo Larrain’s Spencer takes a well-known tale and uses it to portray a woman on the edge.
Stewart stars as Diana, Princess of Wales on Christmas Eve in the early 1990s. Diana is not in the best of states, being constantly hounded by paparazzi, she ditches her security detail and heads to the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. Despite the Christmas holiday, a rigorous schedule is to be followed.
When Diana arrives, she meets Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), who keeps a watchful eye on the house and especially Diana. Apart from Gregory, Diana’s dresser and friend Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and the Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris) provide much-needed support from the staff. On the royal side, Diana’s estranged husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) arrives with both of Diana’s sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddy Spry).
Diana’s mental state is constantly in flux. She cannot maintain the structure of the rigorous schedule as well as her rampant bulimia. Diana is being suffocated by the constant pressures of her role as well as her royal and public expectations. All she wants is to have her children and be left alone, but her life does not allow either of those things.
Larrain douses the film with fog and overcast skies. The weather is never clear and sunny, but it’s also never completely dark. The weather and the allegiances are constantly gray. Straight lines are also ever-present. Why does the royal family stick to such rigorous tradition but overlook traditional morality? Why is Diana viewed as such a threat just because of unpredictability?
The director’s experimental nature shines through when questioning Diana’s mental state. At times, what the audience sees seems real, but the opposite is true one scene later. This adds to the uneasy feeling Diana shares with the royal family. This unsteady reality also forces the viewer to pay attention and notice things that you otherwise would miss.
The cinematography treats the film as a ghost story, while the spectacular costuming add to the allure. Each of Diana’s outfits tells a story and the way she puts on, takes off, or switches each outfit means something. Just like every stroke of light pouring through the windows means so much more than surface level.
Stewart and Larrain are on the exact same wavelength and the actress dives headfirst into what is asked of her. Stewart’s Diana is never comfortable. Every request might seem reasonable on paper, but she approaches every interaction with a detective-like inquiry. She always sees the ulterior motives. Her only recourse is to be unpredictable, which the royals cannot have. Stewart embodies her headspace perfectly.
Hawkins doesn’t have much to do but delivers some great lines in support of her friend. Spall is born to play an uptight royal household member. His tight but gentle delivery put him mostly at odds with Diana, but his actions occasionally seem to favor her. His allegiances are never questioned, but his humanity does make its way through. Farthing also turns what is expected to be a loathsome character into a real person. To the film’s credit, the royals are not portrayed as totally inhumane, just rigorous to tradition.
Harris is my favorite supporting performance. His character works as a plot device at times, introducing the meals before they are prepared, which splits the film into chapters. He is great at his job, but he is utterly human to Diana. He knows she is in distress but he knows how the walls of the estate work. His complete decency to Diana shines through during a monologue to her about how the staff treats her. Harris booms to his staff, but barely rises above a whisper to Diana.
Atmospheric and ghostly, Spencer gives Kristen Stewart a showcase performance and places Pablo Larrain in the discussion of the greatest working directors. It takes a special group of filmmakers to tread material this well known and make it feel fresh.