'Spencer' Film Review
Spencer isn't the period drama you might expect - it's a ghost story. And I don't say that just in a thematic sense, though Diana was certainly haunted by many a spectre in her time. What I mean is that Spencer, at its core, is a psychological thriller, one with nightmarish montages, disturbing moments of surrealism and - yes - ghosts.
Perhaps this is why the audience score for Spencer on the popular review amalgamator 'Rotten Tomatoes' is so low when compared to its critical reception; it's been approved by 85% of critics and yet 50% of audiences have registered it 'rotten'. And though I personally adored this film (I'll get to why in a moment), I can see why this has happened. The Diana story has been reintroduced into the zeitgeist multiple times in the past two years, be it with her award-winning portrayal by actor Emma Corrin in The Crown, or because of her own son's controversial departure from Royal duties (Harry having cited his late mother's strength as a source of inspiration). We’re all collectively craving another dose of the People’s Princess, and eager to see what Elizabeth Debicki will do with the role in the final, third chapter of The Crown.
But Spencer delivers something different. This isn’t a family drama, nor a depiction of marital decline. It’s definitely not cosy in the way that The Crown can be, though it’s thoroughly absorbing all the same. This is a story of mental breakdown, one spanning just three cold days (Christmas, 1991), and figures like Charles and Camilla, though present, are barely present enough to qualify as co-stars (Parker-Bowles is practically an extra). So audiences intrigued by the film’s magnificent mise èn scene, it’s gorgeous couture gowns and twinkling palace interiors would be forgiven for assuming they’d signed up for a film with stylistic similarities to The Crown or even The Queen. But be warned; Spencer is a fantasy. A self-defined “fable derived from a true tragedy," and it's sharply focused, highly stylised, deliciously slow, and intense.
Even fans of director Pablo Larraín's previous works might need to adjust to this new approach. Another historical drama of his, the brilliant Jackie, offered a similar exploration of an iconic woman at the heart of western power. But Jackie didn't quite veer into the claustrophobic mania which has defined Diana's own legacy, a mania which contorts the Spencer screenplay just as potently. This film's opening, if watched on mute, could almost be mistaken for a Downton Abbey opening - albeit one shot on exquisitely murky 16 and 35mm film. But Spencer's score offers our first hint that it's committed to trying something new. Rampant, screeching strings and broken melodies that feel like Ari Aster exports lay the groundwork for Spencer to take some big artistic swings, and it’s not long until we as an audience struggle alongside Diana to decipher truth from hallucination, conspiracy from control.
But Larraín isn't the only one displaying a mastery of his craft. Kristen Stewart has come a long way since her infamous portrayal of Bella in the miserable Twilight franchise, but she still hasn't quite shaken that stink in the way her co-star Pattinson has with his Batman casting. There's undoubtedly some cultural sexism at play for this as Stewart has blossomed into an impeccable actress, but I do believe that Spencer has the capacity not just to restore her cultural reputation but to propel her towards awards season domination. Stewart manages to convey Diana’s resilience and frailty in concurrence. Her performance isn't an imitation of Diana, nor a vapid impression; Stewart's Spencer has, instead, a remarkable, almost bottomless depth, a profound likability and a palpable mania that rings true.
It is the depiction of this mania that has brought on a lot of Spencer's critique. The same right wing tabloids which hounded the figure until her death have become her postbellum defenders, questioning whether the film's depiction of her eating disorders and self harm are 'appropriate' or 'respectful' to her memory or her sons. But beyond this tabloid hypocrisy I find these questions a little ridiculous. Spencer is a film, it is a piece of art, and Diana is, at this point, a quasi-mythological figure whose life and legacy continue to touch people in palpable ways. Around halfway through the film, Diana questions how she would be remembered in the years to come. "William the Conqueror," she chimes, "Elizabeth the Virgin...what will it be for me? Diana the Insane?"
It's a fear that this particular film doesn't necessarily absolve, with its narrow focus on a particularly dark period for her mental health, but as its screenplay draws to a close and we catch a glimpse of the Diana she'd soon become - the mackintosh-clad, McDonald's frequenting, gay-nightclubbing divorcée - there's hope beyond the frailty of her darkest moments. Yes, this is a film which can be incredibly uncomfortable to watch, and I certainly found myself welling up multiple times, but it never mocks or dehumanises its subject - indeed, that proves to be a job left to the invisible, omniscient press. I would actually posit that, in depicting Diana's genuine suffering, Spencer restores a sense of humanity to Diana that's been lost in all of the noise; its suggestion of emotional fragility seems far more flattering than blind canonisation. Put bluntly, if Spencer makes The Sun uncomfortable, I’d suggest it's doing its job.
It's also worth applauding the film's supporting cast. Though only front and centre in one or two key scenes, Jack Farthing's Charles is a wonderful addition to the film. His rendition of the King-to-be is icily cold and in perfect energetic opposition to Stewart's Diana. Their chemistry constitutes one of the standout sequences in the entire film - a conversation across a snooker table, which the eagle-eyed will remember from the film's haunting trailer. Equally impactful are Timothy Spall and Sean Harris, who both portray key members of the palace workforce and who each have standout conversations with Stewart in the film. Spall's ex-military guard is a deeply unsettling presence, and expertly captures how the eyes within the palace haunted Spencer as much as the paparazzi. Countering Spall is Harris, who defies his normal type-casting and glows as one of the few beacons of warmth within the palace halls. But the true stand-out here, in terms of supporting cast, is Sally Hawkins, who plays the role of Diana's lady's maid with such genuine geniality that I as a viewer felt as dependent on her as Stewart's princess.
And I can't mention Hawkins' character without worshipping the impeccable Chanel-drenched rail that oft trundles behind her. Spencer's poster-gown, the haute couture tulle number which dazzles on the film's billboards, is as hypnotic on film as it is in photographs. And the rest of her wardrobe's royal blues and vivid reds are just as impactful and meaningful on Larraín's grainy celluloid as they were in the gritty 90s newsreels. The clothes in this film are a character of their own (as cliché as it is to say), and it's clear Larraín totally understands the importance of Diana's fashion as a tool of communication and defiance during her final few years under the Windsor’s thumb.
Ultimately, Spencer is a film that demands a lot of its audience. It requires us to let go of our reverence for Diana, to trust the filmmaker's skills and vision, and to embrace the liberties it takes in the telling of this fable, but those who wish to jump will find their risk eventually rewarded. To be frank, Spencer is like a swim in cold sea - you might find yourself resistant in the first ten minutes or so, but once you’ve waded shoulders-deep you’ll be grateful to have taken the plunge. Though content warnings regarding this film's depiction of self-harm and bulimia shouldn't be shirked - this is truly unflinching - Spencer is, at its core, an incredibly thoughtful film, and roars amidst the maelstrom of noise that's disputing the relevance of the monarchy-as-it-stands in a post-EIIR world.
Stewart deserves every accolade coming to her; Spencer is a royal treat.
Written by James Green