2021, R, 111 min. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet, Amy Manson, Emma Darwall-Smith.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Nov. 5, 2021
Heed well the opening caveat of Spencer: “A fable of a true tragedy.” For this tale of Lady Diana, Princess of Wales (Stewart), strays off the path of hoary biopic conventions, taking certain liberties to arrive at a much more interesting and sinister place. It’s a gothic fugue of a film, albeit one scored with free jazz, that positions the crushing weight of history and duty overhead while we watch as our heroine uses every weapon in her arsenal to escape with her identity intact.
Taking place over a few days of the Christmas holidays in 1991, Spencer begins as any good fable does, with our main character lost on her way to a castle. But Sandringham House is no ordinary castle. The sprawling estate of the British royal family may be known for its comfort, but here, in the ever twilight bleakness of winter light, it’s an imposing place, the Overlook Hotel transported to Norfolk. In what will become a major trend in the film, Diana is late. But why should she conform to the propriety of punctuality when her marriage is over, her separation from Prince Charles (Farthing) mere months away, and Camilla Parker Bowles (Darwall-Smith) looming to take her place? When she’s not defiantly skipping curtain calls or ignoring her meticulous wardrobe schedule, she finds solace in spending quality time with her two children, as well as maintaining her eating disorder and self-harm rituals. Her nemesis here is Major Alistar Gregory (Spall), tasked with not only orchestrating the holiday proceedings, but keeping a close eye on Diana herself, for the paparazzi sharks smell blood, and Diana’s erratic, nay, alarming behavior has the royal family in a tizzy, if one can call oppressively solemn silence a tizzy. She does have confidantes, however, in the form of her dressing maid Maggie (Hawkins) and head chef Darren (Harris). Both offer assistance as best they can, and urge a cautionary approach to what is amounting to a full-on identity crisis, replete with visions of Anne Bolyen (Manson), a harrowing visit to her childhood home, and scarecrow totems. But Diana has had it with decorum, even as Maggie warns her, in a brilliant bit of wordplay, that “everyone here hears everyone.” She just wants her fucking life back.
Co-fabulists Pablo Larraín and writer Steven Knight have made a film that marries the former’s elliptical, experimental style with the latter’s penchant for alternative histories stuffed with archetypes. But it is Stewart’s performance at the center of it all that is the most startling aspect of Spencer. She brings a theatricality in the way she moves and speaks that transcends impersonation yet falls thankfully shy of camp. Her interpretation of Diana is risky, but it is also the glue that holds this brilliantly odd and lavishly shot film together. The tragedy may be true, but at least for a time, the princess does break free of the castle.