Pablo Larraín’s most recent film, Spencer, has a lot to live up to. As the markedly apt saying goes, when it rains it pours, and these past few years have been rife with interpretations of Princess Di, the Princess of Wales, the former Lady Diana Spencer. For the past two seasons, Emma Corrin has represented the younger Diana, on Netflix’s The Crown, documenting the events leading to her betrothal to Prince Charles as well as the tumultuous years of their doomed marriage. In fact, the series finale of season four (Corrin’s final season playing Diana) ends at the famed Sandringham Estate where, during another Christmas, Prince Philip implores that Diana heeds her oath to the crown and try to maintain both her marriage and civility to the family. It’s difficult In that sense, for those who watch The Crown, for Spencer to stand on its own, and even more difficult to accept Spencer’s ethereal premise.
For those who can separate the two works of fictionalized history (or three for that matter, if you also count the recent musical, Diana, which premiered on the stage in 2019), Spencer is largely rewarding for the warped fairy tale it presents and claims to be. The opening credits set the scene, detailing that this is a fable based on true events as opposed to an accurate account of Diana’s decision to leave the royal family. We first find Diana (an exquisitely focused Kristin Stewart) on her way to Sandringham Estate for Christmas with the royal family, stalling for time as she knows that once she arrives, she’s going to be back under the microscope again, with every move she makes becoming fodder for royal and tabloid critique. The eerie, psychological mood-building the first act sets up is the Christmas pud in which the film bakes, with each subsequent scene easing you into Diana’s deteriorating psyche. Larraín’s film isn’t concerned with feeding you the facts of what has led Diana to this particularly painful Christmas holiday, so if you aren’t aware of the history of the royal family, it truly does read as a princess story gone wrong, asking what would happen if the prince, and all of the royal rewards, turned sour. But it can also translate as a story about modern divorce (scratch the tiara and pearls) and what it means to choose yourself and your children instead of the family who no longer serves you. The film cleverly can eject itself from history entirely, depending on the viewer.
The film is also clever in its depiction of Diana’s relationship to the common man, whether that’s Darren, the head royal chef, or her royal dresser, Maggie (a delightful surprise in Sally Hawkins). Diana emotionally identifies as more common than royal, despite being born into British nobility, and Spencer argues this rift has driven her mad over the years, seeping into her very tether to the living world. In so much, she’s even driven to hallucinating other royal family members from years gone by. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then this otherworldly connection will only strengthen your admiration for the film. And if that type of surrealism isn’t necessarily for you, you can also choose to eject from those hallucinations as well, choosing to read them as mere poetic license that helps to elevate Princess Diana’s very grounded feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
Aside from the macabre tonal shifts in reality, Spencer both sounds and looks great. Scored masterfully by Jonny Greenwood (who can stand on his own, but is most often recognized as Radiohead’s lead guitarist), the narrative weaves through moody fog and well-lit estate hallways as if the music grows from the very lawns of Norfolk itself. You’re never quite sure if Diana’s woes are ever as powerful as they are at Sandringham, where the juxtaposition of expected holiday mirth and reality-driven familial obligation are at their strongest, and the music helps to sell that confusion. That score, mirrored upon the beautiful countryside of Norfolk, convinces any given audience member that this is the land of fantasy: one that can no longer be fully treated as our own reality.
What is needed to help pull the narrative back to Earth, and draw you back to some form of history, is the clothes, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran succeeds in every single facet of Spencer. Arguably, outside of Diana’s grace and philanthropy, the most lasting impression she had on the modern royal family’s representation was her style, and it appears Spencer’s biggest focus was to replicate Lady Di’s facade. The ending of the film is poetic, certainly, but one can’t help but feel that the conclusion of the film reads like a fashion show. Beautiful to watch, and iconic in scope, it just can’t help but feel a bit like a modern-day perfume ad. All of that pacing and structure aside, Durran’s work on dressing not only the royal family, but the entire antfarm of employees who keep the royal family dressed and fed is a feat in itself, and I hope she’s rewarded come Oscar nomination season. (Between The French Dispatch, Dune, House of Gucci, The Green Knight, et al, the costume design category will be seeing more than its fair share of competitors this year.)
While all of these triumphs in the production of the film are admirable, the film has garnered considerable praise for Stewart’s performance, which is undeniable. Her Diana, however, is tinged with confusion and, what the film seems to judge as, weakness. While she struggles with her bulimia and growing distrust of nearly everyone around her, the film somehow glamorizes her plight with cool jewel tones, wide-angle shots, and longing glances from Stewart herself. Stewart completely nails this particular character analysis (not to say that the acting choices are far-fetched in the context of the film, far from it), but if you choose to start weaving the film’s story-book-gone-wrong tone with that of the wretched reality of Diana’s grooming to fail, there’s a severe disconnect.
In the final shot of the film, we see Diana peering across the Thames with a twinkle in her eye, but only for a split second. She has freed herself from the jail cell within her mind, but she’s quickly reminded that she will never be free from the family she married into and the magnifying glass from which she’ll always run. But before those closing scenes (that of mother and children fleeing Norfolk and enjoying a casual meal bridgeside), the film crescendos in a moment of freedom that contradicts the judgment and stigma the writing and direction seem to place on mental illness. Spencer wants so desperately to free Diana from her ailments, but it can’t see that in doing so, she becomes more myth than human, more fantasy than flesh and blood. And because the two truly can’t be separated in our reality, her story seems stunted in both. A moody, ethereal royal nightmare, Spencer truly is, but the question of “too soon” or necessity looms large. While Spencer is an enthralling character study, its lack of empathy with Diana’s inner struggles stunts the conversation surrounding mental illness. Sympathy abounds, but without the deeper analysis of crown and country, the men who wrote and directed Spencer trap Diana in a box much too small. She was the people’s princess after all. To reduce her to something as simple and moody as mental complexity is to imply that something within her was intrinsically wrong, something from which she should be freed and stripped. And for a woman who was already stripped of so much, it’s unfair to rob her of her humanity too.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.