I’m not someone who knows a lot about the British royal family, but that didn’t keep me from watching Spencer, in which Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana. The film follows the royals during their 1991 Christmas festivities at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, during which Diana and her husband Charles (Jack Farthing) are going through difficult problems in their marriage. It’s an interesting setting for the movie, though I’ll admit that my quick Wikipedia reading on Diana and this time in her life in the theater before the movie did help orient me to what was happening.
Thankfully, that’s the only aspect of the movie that counts as a negative for me. For anyone wholly unfamiliar with the context like I’d have been save for the internet, some of the intricacies, nuances, and foreshadowing can be lost. Plus, it’s somewhat difficult to glean any universal truths thanks to its firm centering on the British monarchy.
But I don’t want it to come across like I didn’t like this movie, because I actually did very much. It’s a scathing look at the life of a royal. A central metaphor is that Diana is treated more as currency than as a person and that she should have two versions of herself — the private and public versions. It’s a life that no one should have to live, and especially so when it’s against their will.
It starts with Diana wanting some semblance of autonomy, so she decides to drive herself to Christmas, but gets lost since she’s without her usual driver and security detail. So she stops in on a small cafe on the side of the road to ask for directions, which leaves the everyday folk speechless. This is intercut with shots of the high-end kitchen staff preparing the first meal for the family, and even the military providing security measures for the weekend. It’s a jarring dichotomy and sets the tone well for the rest of the film.
Director Pablo Larraín and cinematographer Claire Mathon show off the massively lavish estate that, in another movie, might have the viewer dripping with awe and jealousy. But here, it’s as welcoming as a prison. Diana has no interest in the increasingly over-the-top life she’s expected to live, what with a different outfit for each meal or church appearance. It’s all an exercise in vanity and narcissism of which she wants no part. Couple this with a haunting score from Jonny Greenwood, and you have one of the best technical marvels of the year, along with its compelling story.
Larraín and writer Seven Knight keenly compare Diana to Anne Boleyn (portrayed in vision form by Amy Manson). Anne was the second wife of Henry VIII, who had her beheaded for treason. Again, for someone like me, who should have paid more attention on global history class, the movie works in this parallel gently enough to be understood.
The film largely functions as a sympathetic view of Diana, but a very unsympathetic one of the royal family as an institution, even insinuating that Diana’s eventual death was no mere accident. I always enjoy a balanced look at a powerful institution, and this is one of the largest existing today. It’s even quite timely with what’s been happening in the British royal family now, 30 years later.
But while it’s mostly difficult to take anything universal out of this movie other than a takedown and mistrust of institutions, there is something to be said about the unique way Spencer goes about addressing fame. We’ve had many other movies tackle this subject in recent years, but I can’t remember another one that does so much to make the glamorous look unglamorous, the elegant look repulsive, and the supposedly warm and tacit love of family look cold and wholly undesirable. People will be talking about Stewarts stunning turn as Diana when it comes to awards season — and deservedly so; she is fantastic — but I think it’s the writing, direction, and music of Spencer that really set it apart and make it something special, timely, and timeless.