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Any film in which a woman who left an indelible mark on the popular culture of the late 20th century finds comfort in the ghost of Anne Boleyn is unlikely to be your grandparents’ Princess Diana biopic. Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight’s audaciously original Spencer reins in its tight focus to a three-day Christmas weekend at Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk in the early ‘90s, when the sham of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles had become unendurable. Billed as “a fable from a true tragedy,” this is a speculative study of a woman in extremis, played by an incandescent Kristen Stewart.
Chilean director Larraín’s transfixing 2016 English-language debut, Jackie, trained its emotionally penetrating lens on Jacqueline Kennedy reeling in the shell-shocked wake of her husband’s assassination. While it has a similar raw intimacy, his new film, by contrast, examines another woman in the public eye as she faces the inevitability of an escalating crisis, anticipating the harsh glare of a spotlight that has already scorched her on multiple occasions.
Stewart’s Diana is on the edge of hysteria from the start. She’s jittery, brittle, often abrasively defensive and yet deeply vulnerable in a film that puts her through a psychological wringer with shadings of outright horror. This is a long way from the more decorous treatment of Netflix’s The Crown, which depicted the painful unraveling of Diana and Charles’ marriage in season four in tones of resolute sympathy for the outsider caught in the chill of a royal PR nightmare.
Knight’s script certainly doesn’t lack compassion for the tragic figure at the center of the maelstrom. But the writer and director also make a lot of gutsy choices that put her at a distance — as Diana herself describes it in the film, like an insect under a microscope with its wings being tweezed off. The Nov. 5 Neon/Topic Studios release won’t be for everyone, though the eternal cult of worship around the Princess of Wales — and curiosity to see Stewart fling herself without a safety net into a role for which she’s far from an obvious choice — will make it a must-see for many.
Taking Diana’s maiden name as its title makes sense given that the Sandringham House weekend brings her back to the same estate where she spent her childhood, in a neighboring home. The arc of Spencer follows her wrestling with the decision to stay and endure the agony of imprisonment in an artificial world that has proven inhospitable to her, or to bolt for freedom and reclaim her selfhood, taking her children with her.
Talented French DP Claire Mathon, known for her superlative collaborations with Céline Sciamma, as well as such visually distinctive work as Atlantics and Stranger by the Lake, opens with a simple shot of frost thick on the ground, an obvious but apt metaphor for the reception that awaits Diana. Having skipped out on her driver and security team in London, she arrives solo in a top-down convertible, but not before getting lost on the country roads. The first words we hear from her are “Where the fuck am I?,” muttered while she puzzles over a map. The awestruck silence when she enters a motorway eatery to ask for directions points to the British public’s perception of her as a fairy-tale figure, not quite real.
The regimented protocols of the royal holiday weekend have already been established in the security sweep of the house and grounds and the military precision with which the lavish catering supplies are delivered. Even before she meets kind head chef Darren (Sean Harris) on the road, Diana is well aware that her tardiness will displease the family, whose Christmas traditions, while referred to more than once as “a bit of fun,” are rigid. But she’s defiant about taking her time, stopping to remove her father’s battered old coat from a scarecrow on the property.
Monitoring Diana’s every move with hawk eyes and a concerned scowl is Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall, excellent as always). The prune-faced equerry has been recruited from the Queen Mother’s staff as an extra precaution against press intrusions, in light of unflattering reports about infidelities and tensions in Charles and Diana’s marriage.
For a considerable amount of time, it seems as though Diana’s only direct conversation will be with servants, including her beloved personal attendant Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and Darren, but also with less trusted allies and her young sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). The boys’ complaints about feeling cold in the under-heated house are one of several instances in which Knight hits the metaphors a tad too hard. But time spent with her sons is Diana’s only joy.
She eventually does speak with Charles (Jack Farthing) — at first in a terse sotto voce dinner-table exchange and then in a heated argument with the couple at either end of a snooker table — and the queen (Stella Gonet), who remains inscrutable when Diana tries to soften her with a compliment. Otherwise, it’s strictly curtsies and silence. The remaining members of the royal family, covering four generations, are a blur throughout, a disapproving enemy camp seen in Diana’s peripheral vision.
From the start, Stewart plays Diana as a messy, free-spirited outlier in an environment of suffocating order. There’s rebellion behind her refusal to show up on time to the ritualistic appointments of afternoon sandwiches, Christmas Eve dinner or gift unwrapping, even when a fretful William reminds her of the taboo of being seated after his grandmother. But beneath the rebellion is lacerating trauma, which manifests in her bulimia, self-harm, paranoia and a resistance that lurches between crippling fear and contempt.
She comes to believe that a biography by her bedside, Anne Boleyn: Life and Death of a Martyr, was planted there by Major Gregory to gaslight her. The same goes for Charles’ Christmas gift of a spectacular pearl choker, identical to the one he gave his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith) — referred to only as “her” and seen just once, scrutinizing Diana from a safe distance after Christmas morning church service, with what looks like pity.
While some will no doubt reject Spencer as lurid psychodrama, the presentation of the royal family as a sinister body corporate, ready to inflict wounds and ice out any interloper who tarnishes their brand is chillingly compelling.
More than once, Diana is reminded that everything said in the house is heard, everything done is seen. After being repeatedly chided for neglecting to close the curtains of her room while undressing, risking being photographed by the paparazzi, Diana returns to find they have been stitched shut. Worried that she’s cracking up, Maggie tells her of the royal family: “They can’t change. You have to change.” But even Maggie’s loyalty comes into question until a wonderful scene of momentary reprieve near the end, infused with enormous warmth by Stewart and the invaluable Hawkins, as well as humor brushed with melancholy.
The sequence likely to raise a few eyebrows has Diana marching across the field in her glamorous white Christmas dinner gown, equipped with wire cutters and a pair of Wellington boots, to enter the boarded-up house where she was raised, now in disrepair and crawling with rats. It would be a bizarre interlude even without the ghostly encounters, but it serves to show that Diana is still on some intimate level the naive young girl she was when she entered into the marriage contract. A dreamy montage that comes later further reaffirms that, while also representing her yearning to be free.
Larraín and Knight are careful not to strip the characters around Diana of all humanity, even if it’s just a remorseful look in the eyes of Farthing’s Charles, or a sad personal memory shared by Major Gregory before reverting to all-business formality. And the affection of the staff for her, epitomized by the thoughtful words of Darren and Maggie at various times, suggests why Diana became known as “The People’s Princess,” earning a popularity that perhaps rankled the more aloof royals. But this is very much a harrowing portrait of a woman alone, aware that her options for sanity are running out.
As such, it rests on Stewart’s shoulders and she commits to the film’s slightly bonkers excesses as much as to its moments of delicate illumination. The hair and makeup team has done a remarkable job at altering her appearance to fit the subject, even if this is a film in which the essence of the characters is given more weight than the actors’ resemblance to them. But Stewart’s finely detailed work on the accent and mannerisms is impeccable. The camera adores her, and she has seldom been more magnetic, or more heartbreakingly fragile.
Stewart, of course, knows a thing or two about being relentlessly — and often harshly — scrutinized as a young, suddenly famous woman; that ability to identify perhaps informs her characterization in her most riveting performance since Personal Shopper.
Looking effortlessly chic in Jacqueline Durran’s costumes — modeled on classic Diana looks, some of which, it has to be said, veer into kitsch — she clearly belongs to another species compared to the starchy mob determined to rule her every move. Her isolation invites tender feelings, even at her most unhinged.
The fact that she’s told, “Just look gorgeous,” as if that’s her job, only adds to the pathos. She’s treated like a porcelain doll, her pre-selected wardrobe arranged on a rack and labeled for each occasion. Even a minor departure from that sartorial schedule is seen as a worrying infraction of the rules.
Occasionally Knight’s dialogue is on the nose, notably when Diana objects to William being taken along by his father on a pheasant shoot, ignoring her wishes that he not be exposed to guns. “Beautiful but not very bright,” she says with bitter self-irony of the game birds after being told that they are bred for sport and that those not shot are usually run over. An even clunkier moment follows, when she talks to a pheasant that has wandered up to the garden steps: “Go on, fly away, before it’s too late.” But Stewart sells even those awkward missteps.
The music by Jonny Greenwood (who contributed an evocative score for another film premiering in Venice, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog), is as bracing and risky as anything else in Larraín’s film, shifting from melodic piano and string themes early on into discordant free-form jazz or oppressive pipe organ passages as Diana’s self-possession unravels. And Mathon’s camerawork is ravishing, constantly in motion, gliding behind and circling a subject who bristles at being under constant surveillance.
Not everything lands in Spencer, and I often wondered if the film was so set on bucking convention that it would alienate its audience. But it tells a sorrowful story we all think we know in a new and genuinely disturbing light — of a tortured woman trapped under glass and in a state of alarm, fumbling for her emancipation and, like Anne Boleyn, trying to keep her head.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Jack Farthing, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Elizabeth Berrington, Lore Stefanek, Amy Manson, Laura Benson, Wendy Patterson, Emma Darwall-Smith
Distributor: Neon/Topic Studios
Production companies: Komplizen Film, Fabula, Shoebox Films, in association with FilmNation Entertainment
Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Juan de Dios Larraín, Jonas Dornbach, Paul Webster, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Pablo Larraín
Executive producers: Steven Knight, Tom Quinn, Jeff Deutchman, Christina Zisa, Maria Zuckerman, Ryan Heller, Michael Bloom, Ben Von Dobeneck, Sarah Nagel, Isabell Wiegand
Director of photography: Claire Mathon
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Sebastián Sepúlveda
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Casting: Amy Hubbard
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