Throughout Spencer’s two-hour runtime, Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet) and Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) only exchange words once. During their brief conversation, the Queen slyly remarks that the press have a particular fondness for taking photos of Diana. She then tells her daughter-in-law that the only portrait that actually matters in a princess’s life is the one that is taken to print on money when she becomes a queen. That moment, she explains, reminds you that you are merely currency.
By the time the two finally congregate, the audience has been breathlessly awaiting an encounter between Diana and the mythical, apparently formidable queen for nearly half of the film’s runtime. Paired with Jonny Greenwood’s haunting, ominous score, interactions between Diana and just about everyone in Spencer—the frosty Gonet; Jack Farthing, who plays Diana’s famously unfaithful husband Prince Charles; and the always ornery Timothy Spall as the delightfully inhospitable Major Alistair Gregory—are shrouded with an air of acrimony. Through these performances, not least of which is Stewart’s cowering portrayal of Diana, director Pablo Larraín does not allow us to forget the positions of these characters. Diana is the victim. The Royal Family, her oppressors.
Given these already established power dynamics, though, the scene between Diana and the Queen comes across as…odd. Instead of a hostile indictment of Diana’s fame, the Queen’s words come off as refreshingly honest—protective, even. And here lies a critical contradiction in Spencer. While the Royals are perceived by Diana as stifling tyrants, the worst thing they do in the film is repeatedly ask her to come down for dinner.
Indeed, more than anything, the Queen’s statement draws attention to Larraín’s characterization of Diana herself. In a number of ways, the choices he makes in recreating her character do reduce her to a currency of sorts. Larraín’s depiction of Diana is tragic and not particularly flattering. Set in 1991, Spencer takes place in Sandringham as the Royals congregate to celebrate Christmas. At the time, Diana and Charles’s marriage was publicly crumbling, which placed Diana under a hailstorm of scrutiny. The film’s version of Diana is written to be ripe with vanity and insecurity, her bulimia and self-harm pushed to the forefront. With each fleeting glance, Stewart brilliantly, subtly navigates the paranoia, anger and melancholy that Diana is experiencing. But more than anything, Stewart plays her with trembling fragility. This Diana is presented as a victim: One helpless at the conniving hands of the royals. The script, which constantly circles back to gloomy comments made by Diana about her situation, paired with Stewart’s inordinately forlorn expressions, makes it difficult to interpret the power dynamic any other way. It is worth noting, too, that people close to Diana have recounted that during the time period Spencer is set, Diana’s personality was nothing like that portrayed in the film. Instead, she was overwhelmingly disarming and confident. The divergence from reality here allows Larraín to twist Diana into the character he wants to depict, and push Spencer in the direction of a moody, ghostly fairytale. But in favoring style, he also flattens a nuanced story.
Still, it is precisely the portrayal of Diana as a damsel-in-distress that allows Larraín to flex his illusory style, which happens to be one of Spencer’s great strengths. Early in the film, Diana finds a book about Anne Boleyn, the beheaded ex-wife of King Henry VIII and fellow tortured royal, on her bed. She quickly slips into obsession with the woman she perceives as her twin soul—an obsession that Larraín boldly gives a supernatural edge, which is unexpected in a biopic and allows us to explore the more nuanced and less conventional effects of grief and depression. In Diana’s most intense moments of crisis, she sees Anne, and even speaks with her. Larraín tests the limits of what a biopic might really mean. In some moments, Larraín similarly interrogates the truth; in others, he allows psychological elements to permeate the conventional formula. Over dinner, Diana imagines that she snaps her necklace and proceeds to eat the pearls like they are oyster crackers.
I should note, too, that as far as Diana’s character goes, Larraín does not by any means owe the audience a wholly truthful account. In fact, he even goes as far as to open the film stating that his rendition of Diana’s life is “A Fable From A True Tragedy,” and therefore not to be taken at face value. Still, this begs the question: What kind of film is he really trying to make here? It feels trapped exactly in the middle of an optimistic revisionist history, attempting to protect Diana from her tragic fate, and a fragmented, abstracted study of grief and longing that has less to do with Diana and more to do with the discomfort of public scrutiny—unsure of exactly what it wants to be.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Larraín has told the true story of a woman as she navigates difficult emotions in a very, very public setting. Jackie, which follows Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination succeeded in some of the aforementioned areas that Spencer did not. Where in Jackie, Larraín shows the sharp dichotomy between private and public suffering against a political stage, and how unforgiving spectators can be in those situations, in Spencer, he seems to forget what it is exactly he wants to say when unfurling a relentless portrait of torment and discomfort in intense close frames and jarring lines (penned by screenwriter Steven Knight) where Diana alludes to her unhappiness in her day-to-day routine. In framing the film this way, many of the characters seem to exist for only one purpose: To further our protagonist’s discomfort.
Still, much of Spencer is beautifully conceived. Portrait of a Lady on Fire cinematographer Claire Mathon delivers impeccable pastel shots that both emphasize Sandringham’s fairytale-esque quality and Diana’s claustrophobia in breathtaking close-ups. A scene where Diana reminisces on her more joyful memories plays like a tender dance sequence. The brilliant costume design paired with Mathon’s camera—which adds to the dreamlike quality of the moment by dollying around Diana as characters enter the frame and she seamlessly changes into new outfits—makes for a beautiful spectacle. The film’s real star, however, might be Greenwood, whose score oscillates between freeform jazz and simple yet sublime piano melodies—both perfectly capturing Diana’s haunting essence, while maintaining a precarious bubble of tension that remains throughout the film. Where Spencer’s direction can be confused, its style is clear. For all its flaws, the film interrogates the limits of a biopic. And what better subject to do it with than the most beloved media fixation in recent history?
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel
Release Date: November 5, 2021
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.