Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Premise: During Christmas of 1991, the British royal family gathers at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) copes with the pressures of royal life and weighs whether to dissolve her marriage.
What Works: Princess Diana is one of the most ubiquitous public figures of the late twentieth century and even now, nearly a quarter century after her death, Diana remains a popular and recognizable figure whose life has been dramatized in several feature films and television shows. Spencer distinguishes itself with its intimate focus. This is not a cradle-to-grave biopic. Instead, the filmmakers focus on a specific three-day period and imagine Diana’s family problems coming to a head. This is a complex film about identity and freedom. The title of Spencer refers to Diana’s maiden name and she spends the film trying to reclaim her life from an institution. Spencer is a damning depiction of the British royal family but not in a scandalous way. The film portrays British royalty as dangerously emotionally stunted and totalitarian in its control over every aspect of Diana’s life; Spencer often plays like an art house mashup of a political thriller and a family drama. It’s closer to The Lives of Others than it is to The King’s Speech. This atmosphere of oppression and paranoia is cultivated vividly on screen. The film is shot in a way that is subtly claustrophobic and draws attention to minor details that reveal the inner life of the characters. The production design is terrific, striking a balance between the opulence of royal property while making these environments look organic and lived-in. The performances are stellar, starting with Kristen Stewart as Diana. Her physical resemblance to Diana is at times uncanny and Spencer makes some of the best use of Stewart’s acting style. Also impressive is Sean Harris as chef Darren McGrady who is sympathetic to Diana but understands royal politics and Sally Hawkins as Maggie, a fictional dresser and Diana’s confidant.
What Doesn’t: Spencer is a work of speculative fiction. This is announced at the very opening of the film with an epigraph that announces Spencer as “a fable from a true tragedy.” This picture should not be taken as a literal or factual story. However, viewers will benefit from knowing some of that royal history. Spencer has little expository information. The filmmakers do not establish who these people are nor does it explain their relationships to one another. This movie has been made with the presumption that the viewer knows who Princess Diana was and the tabloid drama that marked her time as a royal. Viewers who don’t know that history ought to be follow Spencer’s story but they may not understand all of the nuances.
Bottom Line: Spencer is a unique take on British royal dramas and an intelligent and artful character study. This is distinctly different from other films about the royals or public figures and it offers a visceral feel for a life lived under a microscope.
Episode: #879 (November 21, 2021)