Christmas with the family can be a challenge for anyone. However, in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, it becomes an absolute nightmare.
Set during the three days surrounding Christmas, Spencer focuses on the emotional journey of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) as she struggles to survive her holidays with the Royal Family. With her marriage crumbling and knowledge of Charle’s affair with Camilla now public knowledge, Diana arrives at Sandringham emotionally exhausted and looking forward to time with her sons. However, as she is forced to endure soul-draining traditions that leave her empty, she continues waste away internally. Broken and weary, Diana begins to rebel against the decorum that she has come to despite, raising the ire of a new employee (Timothy Spall) who has been hired to keep her under his strict watchful eye.
In Spencer, director Pablo Larrain weaves a tale that feels more like gothic horror than it does a tale of royalty. As his follow-up to the superb character drama Jackie, this film takes a more thematic approach to its narrative than it does factual recreation of events. In other words, rather than tell a traditional biographical story, Larrain blends both whimsical elements and factual events into a mixture entirely his own. (For instance, the opening text informs the audience that this is a ‘fairy tale based on actual trauma’.) In doing so, he is able to create his own reality that also still feels true to Diana’s emotional stress over her last few years in the Royal Family.
Of course, anchoring the film’s success is a truly remarkable performance by its star. Kristen Stewart has always excelled when she plays characters who are struggling to cope. Even so, to play Diana requires so much more of her. As one of the most identifiable and beloved characters of the 20th Century, the role of the Princess of Wales would pose an incredible challenge to any actress. However, Stewart provides a memorable performance as the People’s Princess that feels authentic to the icon. As Diana, she does an excellent job recreating the mannerisms and voice that made her recognizable around the world. Yet, she also fuels her performance with a sadness and confined rage that takes the focus off of the glamour and reveals the pain of her soul. (However, it’s also worth noting that the moments that are most memorable come when she’s allowed to laugh and have some fun. These brief glimpses of joy are the moments that truly allow Stewart to sparkle onscreen.)
Opening with a shot of a bird being rolled over by military convoy, Spencer is another tale that takes place in the middle of the life of a fallen hero. Taking place over three days over Christmas, Larrain structures the film around a time for family and celebration, yet this is hardly a time for levity. At every turn, this is a reminder of how this beautiful bird was trampled under the weight of tradition and masculine pressure. When she arrives at Sandringham, she is ordered that she must weigh herself before the weekend to be able to measure how much enjoyment was taken from the meals. She is told that she is viewed as ‘currency to be traded’ and that that is where her value lies. Then, when she finally confronts Charles, she is refuted, being told that she needed to be two people. Very much the victim of systemic abuse and control from the powers that be, Diana is forced into an emotional box by Royal traditions and etiquette. (“It’s just a bit of fun after all,” she is repeatedly reminded.) As a result, she struggles to cope with the unreasonable expectations placed upon her that steal pieces of her soul and quietly descends into her own madness. (Incidentally, while the film maintains a slow pace throughout its runtime, this is undoubtedly intentional. Like the ticking of the clock, Larrain wants the viewer to experience time as Diana does while she endures the horrors of the holiday.)
In order to further exemplify this, Larrain visually leans into the mystique of the Monarchy while also heavily accentuating its darker edges. While there are those who would view the hallowed halls of Sandringham Estate as a modern-day Camelot filled with royal servants and quaint traditions, Spencer takes a decidedly different view. Instead of emphasizing Elizabethan charm and mystique, Lorraine imbues the country house with an ominous sense of oppression and dread. Despite its size and grandeur, Lorraine makes the buildings feel claustrophobic. Patterns on the wall feel like prison bars. Morning fog creates an atmosphere of captivity rather than captivation. No matter the time of day, the manor appears suffocating.
As these traumas unravel, Diana is shown to be a woman who is being haunted by ghosts, both figuratively and literally. Plagued by appearances by Anne Bolin, she is reminded of the toxic nature of her relationship with her husband. Stuck in a dead relationship, Diana aches for the simple life and wishes to be the person that she was 10 years ago when this all began. She yearns to find the joy that she wants held that has been stripped of her and wants to protect her children in the same way. However, despite being held under the watchful eye of the Monarchy, Diana gradually begins to kick against the culture of repression. Pressured by the power of the monarchy to conform, Diana’s inner strength begins to bubble to the surface and she begins to take matters into her own hands. (Never has drapery taken on such significance within a film.) For Diana, pleasing the system that surrounds her is not as important as the health of her soul and so she looks for opportunities to give herself space to breathe again.
In the end, Spencer is a unique look at toxic oppression and its relationship to the soul. While this fable may not be based on actual events, Larrain’s film still feels like an authentic representation of reality. With elegance and patience, he constructs thoughtful piece that gives voice to a young woman who had hers taken from her by a system designed to maintain the image of perfection. While others may view it as ‘little bit of fun’, Larrain shows that, in the case of Diana, it’s no laughing matter.
Spencer is available in theatres on Friday, November 5th, 2021.