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Spencer

Released 2021. Director: Pablo Larraín

IS THERE ANYONE IN THE WORLD WHO DOESN'T KNOW who Princess Diana was? The world’s most photographed woman when she was alive, Diana was an obsessive target of the paparazzi. Even after her death in 1997, not a year goes by we don’t see some new programs on TV digging into her life, over and over again. The public can never get enough of Diana. Which is why it isn’t a surprise that Spencer tells the story of the Queen of Hearts without preamble or back story. Diana’s character comes fully formed, as many remember, no introduction necessary.

In this fictionalised account of the royal family’s Christmas at the Sandringham estate, Diana is at the height of her misery. Getting lost on her solo drive to Sandringham is not too subtle a metaphor on how she feels about life in general. Being late, always rushed, forever behind schedule, lonely and isolated, Diana is seen by the royals as unable to adhere to a prescribed way of palace living, rebellious, still an outsider in many ways even after siring two heirs to the throne.

Kristen Stewart disappears into her role. I don’t see the actress; I see only the character. What Stewart has achieved is not so much an impeccable take on Princess Di but a vivid impression of the spirit of Diana, by that I mean her mood, state of mind, feelings and struggles.

Spencer, as written by Steven Knight, is entirely on the side of Diana. Members of the royal family are always presented as though they’re in a silent movie, rarely given an opportunity to speak. And when they do, in the case of Prince Charles and the Queen, their words are cutting and hurtful.

We glimpse Diana’s troubled mind through the time she spends with the two princes, and the interactions with the servants, in particular Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) and her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), with whom Diana shares a beautiful moment of friendship and trust. These are times when Diana is able to speak more freely and they reveal her as a woman, a mother, not a figure of expectation, the one people never stop taking pictures of.

Diana sneaking back to the home she grew up in on a nearby estate tells of her desire to return to a more innocent time in her life. The building, now old, abandoned and dilapidated, houses only memories and ghosts. The past is done, the present is choking her and the future is for Diana to decide, if she can.

The movie is not to be taken as a literal historical account and the signs are clear from the outset. As a sympathetic enactment of Diana coming to a decision to leave her husband and the royal family, Spencer is composed with precision even as a blend of imagination and fantasy, now that the fairy-tale wedding has all but run its course. Except perhaps the scenes of Diana crunching hard on a pearl in her mouth from a necklace she’s just ripped off her neck and visions of Anne Boleyn, the queen beheaded by her husband, which feel strained in a movie so focused on mood and evocation.

Within this portrait of a sorrowful woman is a suppressed energy to free herself and Stewart’s transformative performance rallies the audience to be her accomplice in a prison break, so to speak. After an interminable period suffocated in the company of her in-laws, Diana grabs her two boys and takes to the road, singing along to “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics. It’s the movie’s only real moment of joy and yes, cliché allowing, with wind in her hair, Diana could breathe again and be free, culminating in the ordering of KFC at a drive-thru. You know, stuff regular people do.

Spencer shares very clear thematic and stylistic similarities with director Pablo Larraín’s look at Jackie Kennedy in the moments after her husband’s assassination in Jackie (2016). Both movies centre on a famous woman adrift and gasping for air in an establishment too cold to provide consolation. Both movies spin truth and fantasy around a historical character dwelling sensitively on her mental and emotional state, anchored by two extraordinary performances (Jackie is played by Natalie Portman in an Oscar-nominated role).

Diana’s story will never dim in the popular imagination. The world has been fascinated since the fairy-tale wedding and whatever else happens to the British monarchy, someone will always find something to say about Diana. Spencer will not be the last.

Although Spencer conveys Diana’s unhappiness and despair in a grand style, Larraín’s over-emphasis on mood and staging comes at the expense of the narrative, echoing with whispers and sighs, dramatically inert and without an emotional persuasiveness to really move.


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