This review contains spoilers.
“[It’s] all set, as if everything has already happened,” moans Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) to a pair of maids in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. She is lamenting her loss of agency: she’s unable even to decide how to dress herself.
It’s 1991, a decade into her flailing marriage, and the princess is suffering through the family holiday from hell. But the line is also a challenge posed by the Chilean director in his latest film, which takes the story of Diana and twists it into fantasy and revelation.
Princess Diana (born Diana Frances Spencer, as the film wants to remind us) has been the subject of no small amount of hagiography. Documentaries, magazines, books, television shows, Instagram accounts, commemorative schlock and an endless churn of tabloid articles have pored over her image. She unites the mainstream and the margins of society in obsession. The fixation persists because she proves the clichés: privilege is poisonous, celebrity is suffocating and beauty is a gift until it is a burden.
Spencer takes place over three days during the royal family’s Christmas celebrations on their Sandringham estate – a dreadful procession of dining obligations, specific dress codes and silly traditions. For Diana – confined by the crown, tormented by the press and dealing with a cheating husband – the pomp and ceremony are pure agony.
“Don’t see conspiracy in everything,” encourages Diana’s dresser and only real confidante, Maggie (Sally Hawkins). But how can she not? The pearls given to her by her husband, Prince Charles, are identical to those he gave his mistress. There is a new royal employee at Sandringham, ostensibly there to keep Diana in line. A book called Anne Boleyn: The Life and Death of a Martyr – about the queen beheaded by the adulterous Henry VIII because of his desire for a new wife – appears in her bedroom.
There wasn’t much to admire in Larraín’s trite Jackie (2016), another biopic about an adored woman whose identity is wedded to gruesome tragedy. But there was one scene that fascinated me: Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy, glassy-eyed and stoic, staring into a mirror as she wipes off the blood splatter from her husband’s assassination. It seemed like an attempt to move the biopic into more interesting genre territory – horror or melodrama – in order to unveil hidden emotional truths.
Spencer is far more realised. Much of the film plays out like a psychodrama: the estate is a maze of woozy hallways, cavernous bedrooms and misty gardens. Diana stumbles through these landscapes to Jonny Greenwood’s queasy orchestral score. The colour scheme is sickly and pale: prim pinks, pill yellows, pea soup so green it looks as if it’s glowing. Her gowns have the aura of bondage. Diana’s malaise frequently tips the film into the surreal. In one dinner scene, she tugs the adulterous pearls around her neck until they break and fall into her soup. She spoons a mouthful, crunching the beads.
While Stewart’s film roles stretch back to when she was a child, the teenage vampire series Twilight solidified her celebrity. Her acting, however, was the subject of mockery, with Stewart accused of being a sullen and stilted presence on screen. But it is precisely this inscrutability that makes her one of the most compelling actors of our time. What once was dismissed as a kind of vacancy has morphed into an openness, a beguiling sadness. She is best when playing spectral beings: stand-ins, celebrities, the haunted.
French director Olivier Assayas has best harnessed her ghostly gifts. In their first film together, Clouds of Sils Maria, she plays a personal assistant to a revered middle-aged actress and undergoes a mysterious fate.
In their next collaboration, Personal Shopper, Stewart is something of a medium, drifting from store to store to bring luxury clothes to a model while her dead brother beckons from beyond the grave. This existential unease continued in roles as tortured actress and Black Panther supporter Jean Seberg, as well as the woman who posed as writer J. T. LeRoy to cover up the infamous literary hoax.
Stewart’s Diana is eternally on the edge. Each line is delivered as if she is holding back a scream or is seconds away from collapsing into a pool of tears – but it’s nothing like the ghastly mimicry of Natalie Portman in Jackie. A little light seeps through the cracks: wit, effervescence, disobedience. Her only way of wielding control over her life seems to be regurgitating her meals down the toilet. Stewart’s trembly performance excavates a crucial part of Diana’s appeal: elegance mixed with an enduring sorrow. As Tina Brown writes in her gossipy Diana biography, The Diana Chronicles: “Pain made her luminous.”
While I enjoy nothing more than images of sad girls in gowns, Larraín’s film risks overstating Diana as an avatar for suffering. Steven Knight’s sometimes corny script, which dwells on her gloom and presages her doom, doesn’t help.
There has been a push to resurrect women from the annals of history, to get right what we got wrong the first time around and atone for previous cruelties. This has taken the form of revealing documentaries , but has also emerged in narrative films (Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell about a proxy Courtney Love, and Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, for instance). But I wonder what these projects achieve other than tired apologia, a new way to peck at a hollowed-out carcass.
As the film’s title suggests, Spencer’s new angle is reclamation, aiming to re-establish Diana as her own person, rather than a product of royalty. She longs to return to childhood, no doubt spurred by seeing the dilapidated family home where she grew up, which is located – strangely but also accurately – on the Sandringham estate. All that remains is a dusty dollhouse and her father’s red jacket thrown over a scarecrow.
But depicting this place and period of Diana’s life as a salvation is an odd choice. The real Diana’s upbringing as an aristocrat was insular and lonely. Her mother ran away with another man, her father was cold and distant. Comfort came only from a rotating cast of nannies and Barbara Cartland romance novels. Maybe this is simply the film’s Diana clinging to a fantasy – of an idyllic childhood she did not have, of an identity that does not involve the crown.
Yet it’s Larraín’s dedication to fantasy – to imagine impossible lives, alternative routes, tiny liberations – that makes Spencer far more accomplished than previous attempts to portray Diana on screen. The film’s irreverence frees Diana from the mawkishness that so often cloaks the young, beautiful and dead. This is clear in the film’s final act when, instead of tunnelling towards tragedy, Diana receives an ending that is pure Hollywood fairytale: a cathartic act of defiance and a getaway drive filled with ’80s pop, junk food and an uncanny quietness. A refuge of simple, ordinary pleasures.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as "Princess of wails".
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