After Jackie, there was Spencer. Director Pablo Larraín’s latest biopic moves from one portrait of a powerful woman in the history books to his most ambitious project yet. Tackling one of the most influential and iconic royals in British history, my oh my does he deliver. This ‘fable based on real life’ imagines a misty Christmas at the royal estate of Sandringham and pictures Diana bending under the restrictive pressures of royal life, her refusal to conform to expectations on her behaviour, speech and public manner. Films of this calibre are so rarely seen: it’s captivating.
A stunning performance (or embodiment) by Kristen Stewart, set in sumptuous grounds with gorgeous cinematography, Spencer is an exquisite biopic of the late Princess Diana and a masterclass in filmmaking. A far cry from her earlier days, Spencer is a career-best for Stewart, a mature and thoughtful portrait of a deeply complicated woman.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Release date: October 7, 2021 (LFF)
There have been few figures as well-loved and as controversial as Diana, Princess of Wales. Her enduring legacy has been captured recently in The Crown, as portrayed by Emma Corrin, but it’s Stewart’s uncanny resemblance to the monarch that really makes her performance feel less like acting and more like a physical embodiment of the persona. Taking Diana’s maiden name, Spencer, as the title of the film, Larrain pays affectionate tribute to the princess, tackling issues such as mental health, dysfunctional familial dynamics, and nostalgia and longing for the past.
Set in the early 1990s during a period of tumultuous personal upheaval in the royal family, the film shows the once-vivacious Diana a decade into an unhappy marriage. A large focus of the film is on Diana’s mental health, brought under scrutiny from the royals, the press, and even, it seems, the very walls of the building. Now that The Prince of Wales’ extramarital affair is public, it’s evidently tearing their family life apart at the seams. This is no festive and loving Christmas, but a cold and calculated business that’s punctuated only by the warmth of certain staff and Diana’s boys. While there is a little obvious foreshadowing of the princess’ untimely and tragic death in 1997, for the most part the film avoids looking to the future and focuses on the present moment.
What’s most imaginative about this film is the way it blurs the line between imagination and reality. There are fever-dream sequences featuring a martyred Anne Boleyn (the comparisons to Diana are signposted throughout); there are flashbacks to Diana’s youth in soft focus, emphasising the golden nostalgic years of her carefree childhood in a happy home. After all, before being pulled into royal life, Diana’s family lived in a house on the Sandringham estate — it’s an area that both holds her past and seems to hem in her future.
Stewart absolutely shines in the role, and it feels as if this was the character she was born to play. Honestly. She’s that good. From revealing every emotion on her face and through body language so it’s apparent in a split second before she says anything; to her restless pacing through corridors, gardens and fields, a free spirit who won’t be contained.
The supporting cast is also beautifully placed. Diana’s closest maid Maggie is played by an understated but always peerless Sally Hawkins: this close companionship is shown to be absolutely vital to Diana, craving intimacy as she does, because of her husband’s coldness. She, and other kind servants such as head chef Darren (Sean Harris) act as a foil to the prying Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall). The film does justice to the young William (played by Jack Nielen) and Harry (played by Freddie Spry) and shows just how precious their relationship with their young mother is. While it’s clear that the Prince of Wales’ (Jack Farthing) affairs is putting a strain on their relationship and on Diana’s mental health, the close bond between mother and sons provides an antidote, a remedy to all that pain.
At times the score swells to a cacophony, both oppressive yet internal. At an unforgettable dinner scene, Diana is overwhelmed to the point of acting out — so viscerally, in fact, that many viewers in the screening had a physical reaction. Her struggles with bulimia are faced head-on in this film, another reason why it’s so powerful: the weight of royal life is shown to be taking its toll on her.
As mentioned, the comparisons to Anne Boleyn as martyr are often suggested, but it’s not all doom and gloom: Diana actually thanks the apparition for saving her life when she’s caught between making a disastrous personal decision and fulfilling her duty as a royal.
This film seems to have been divisive among critics even in the short period since its release, and I’d imagine that’s largely concerned with a personal view on the royals as much as it is an assessment of the filmmaking. One thing’s for sure, though: the final scene is so bright and beautiful, it’s a tearjerker by any account. It doesn’t end as abruptly as some biopics do, instead casting our heroine in a triumphant light and giving her the happy ending she deserved.