A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2022


2021, R, 111 mins.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana  /  Sean Harris as Chief Darren  /  Jack Farthing as Prince Charles  /  Sally Hawkins as Maggie  /  Timothy Spall as Major Gregory  /  Amy Manson as Anne Boleyn

Directed by Pablo Larraín  /  Written by Steven Knight

Pablo Larrain's SPENCER is a fact based inspired drama that tells a fictionalized account of Princess Diana's choice to finally break things off with her equally famous husband back in the early 1990s during a psychologically hellish three-day period for her.  

This seems like a fitting companion piece to Larrain's own 2016 film JACKIE, which chronicled another famous woman of influence in Jacqueline Kennedy during the post-JFK assassination era, a time when she too was battling enormous stresses from all possible angles.  In many respects, both JACKIE and SPENCER deal with historical figures and their respective fragile mindsets when confronting uncertain futures, and all while feeling suffocated by the sheer societal and political demands being placed on them.  Both films, though, kind of suffer from the same issues in terms of their avant garde approaches to the material and their underlining subject matter, which has the negative side effect of making these celebrated figures come off as more abstract ciphers than relatable people.  SPENCER is a sometimes frustratingly idiosyncratic in terms of both Larrain's creative choices and its lead performance (which I'll get to later). 

The screenplay (from the usually assured Stephen Knight, who penned EASTERN PROMISES and wrote and directed one of the best one-man minimalist dramas of recent memory in LOCKE) opens in December of 1991 during a time when the Royal Family is about ready to gather and celebrate Christmas at Queen Elizabeth's (Stella Gonet) country side estate.  Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) becomes hopelessly lost on route, despite her being in the vicinity of the area that she actually grew up in pre-royalty.  Her husband in Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is getting dutifully prepared for the festivities to come, whereas his aloof and distant wife in Diana seems to have had all of the passionate desire to live the life of a royal zapped right out of her.  She finds some solace in being reunited with her loving sons in William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) and tries to muster up the internal fortitude to carry on with her family's holiday traditions, but she simply yearns to break completely free from them (that, and the fact that her hubbie is having an affair taints the whole evening to come, not to mention the family's future).  Diana's mental health begins to steadily unravel, leaving her is constant agitated states.  Hell, she even begins to hallucinate that she's seeing the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) herself, whom you may or may not recall was the once wife of Henry the VIII that eventually had her head chopped off so that the latter could marry a mistress.  

Man, talk about on the nose visual metaphors! 



If there are a few things that SPENCER does right then it would be that Larrain is pretty on point here when it comes to relaying the inherent and oftentimes traumatizing stresses that royal life had on Diana herself.  One of the more damning aspects of the story is how this prestigious and all powerful family essentially throws Diana's mental health to the curb and instead uses her as a puppet for good will publicity appearances.  This is the primary source of Diana's deep depression, who feels trapped on a daily basis by her responsibilities to her title and loyalty to her family, which will be put through the ringer in the future with Charles' infidelity and scandal to come.  I don't think, though, that SPENCER emerges as a scathing criticism of the Royal Family members, nor does the film pettily attack their nature.  No, the Queen and her entourage as portrayed more as cold and unsympathetic than they are as purely vindictive minded power players.  They're holding up centuries worth of tradition and will do so using any means necessary, even if that means Diana is put through the emotional gambit as a result. 

It's also somewhat refreshing that SPENCER is not - as perhaps some might be falsely expecting going in - an obligatory biopic of Diana herself and her time with the family. This is not a thorough examination of the full life and times of the Princess of Wales, but rather a more insular and focused piece that hones in on a brief period of this woman's high pressured time within her role and six years before her untimely death.  It's noteworthy that Larrain and Knight open their film with a title card that labels their film as a "fable," mostly because they're not aiming for making SPENCER a historical document nor a realistic account, per se, of this time in Diana's life.  The film is really about cementing us within Diana's ever escalating disillusionment and misery and all of the limitless strains of this life.  SPENCER submerges us at a key point in the Royal Family's existence when one key marriage was beginning to crack under the weight of Charles' adulterous ways and how Diana desperately tried to emancipate herself from all of this.  There are some interesting subplots and supporting characters tied in, like how Diana finds escape in the form of her friendship with Maggie (Sally Hawkins), one of her staff and loyal confidants that serves as a brief conduit out of the rigors of antagonistic paparazzi photographers and constantly being in the public eye with her family.  Unfortunately, these moments are fleeting; Diana is always required to be "on" at a moment's notice as required by her title and stature as a royal. 

Here's the main problem, though, with SPENCER: It's sometimes so esoterically weird (often to alienating distraction) with its very choices in telling this story that I found it too impenetrably cold to embrace at times.  Larrain deserves kudos for staving off tired status quo conventions for these types of dramas, but more often that not her film awkwardly veers from one divergent tone to the next...sometimes fluidly...sometimes without any rhyme or reason.  Some scenes play like body disturbance horror (see one key dinner sequence depicting Diana munching down on something that should never be munched down on) and then they segue into other scenes that are more dramatically grounded...only to be followed up by other sequences that are dreamlike and approaching camp in depicting the fragility of Diana's mindset.  All of this makes for an exceedingly mixed and inconsistent bag for me, which is too bad.  SPENCER is handsomely produced, beautifully shot via Claire Mathon's lens, and contains a hauntingly chilling score by Jonny Greenwood that strikes more of a raw nerve as the narrative progresses.  I appreciated the whole artifice of this film more than I did the film itself.  When the film ended I felt emotionally numb.  Maybe that was the point, but it doesn't necessarily make for good drama.  

Stewart might be the other part of the problem here.  Her casting is fairly audacious, to say the least.  She's not especially a dead ringer for the deceased princess, not to mention that her accent teeters between acceptable and mediocre at best.  That, and her critically lauded performance here is riddled with so many twitchy and nervous mannerisms that I rarely felt that she was fully inhabiting a real famous woman here but rather a broad portrait of mental unease.  I think the 31-year-old actress acclimates herself fine in fully harness the wild mood swings of her character (and the equally chaotic tone of the film she inhabits), but I found it all to be a tad too melodramatically bonkers throughout.  Overall, I just wasn't as enamored with SPENCER as most critics have been since the film's release.  As an expose of a historical figure in horrible distress, the film is an unnerving watch.  As a full bodied portrait of this multi-faceted woman, SPENCER is artfully constructed, but remains an intellectually and dramatically hollow experience.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy that this film does put out there is that this doomed woman only had a half a decade left on the planet after the events of this story in question.  She never really did escape from this life...even when she thought she did.  

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