Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Rated R, 111 minutes.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, and Sean Harris
“A fable from a true tragedy.”
These are the words that precede Pablo Larraín’s SPENCER, a piece of speculative fiction about the life of Diana Spencer, better known to the world as Princess Diana. This is by no means a biopic of the Princess of Wales who would die a tragic death in a car accident as the paparazzi gave chase. It is a moment in time, a glimpse of what was going through her head one Christmas while surrounded by the royal family and the trusty stewards who see everything and whose murmurs can become indispensable currency.
I use the term speculative fiction broadly because SPENCER can be interpreted as fantasy, horror, and even an alternative history of what Diana’s life might have been had she left her husband, Charles.
Larraín – whose film JACKIE will draw a direct comparison because it also centered on a prominent woman of history and because starry performances drive both – seems to be lured to projects about unforeseen circumstances. But the comparisons between the two end there. SPENCER is far more ambiguous despite unfolding over three days.
Diana (Kristen Stewart) is driving a Porsche. She’s not being chauffeured. Her security detail is nowhere to be found. She is lost, yet she grew up on the royal Sandringham Estate in Norfolk – the same estate where Christmas is being spent. Does she really have no clue where she is, or is she mentally off-course?
“I’m a magnet for madness,” Diana says to a prying Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), who keeps a watchful eye through all of her regal comings and goings. He’s like an umpire, though one paid for by the opposing team. That would be the Queen Mum. As an equerry, upholding traditions supersedes individual concerns unless the person bleeds royal blood. Diana’s allies are also servants, but their interactions with the family are a far lesser extent. Maggie (Sally Hawkins) is Diana’s dresser and is someone who she confides in and who inspires her to retain a sense of self as the castle walls start to collapse. The head chef, Darren (Sean Harris) – the first to see Diana as a lost flower floating in the English country breeze – is also sympathetic, though he doesn’t have much time for long chats. Overseeing a kitchen staff like a brigadier general keeps him plenty busy.
SPENCER is an episodic fever dream full of nightmares and instability. A gifted pearl necklace becomes a constricting noose at dinner. The following day, choosing to wear a red merino wool coat over black skirt for Christmas mass, Diana puts up a good front for the press but she has the look of death warmed over. The matching black veil gives added inference. The veil shrouds her face like a prisoner behind bars. Anne Boleyn, who was the second wife to King Henry VIII and sentenced to death for having an affair (history spoiler: he was having an affair), materializes now and again as Diana’s quasi guiding spirit. Perhaps being a “magnet for madness” and losing one’s mind is just another way of losing one’s head.
Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight may not be truth distillers when it comes to factual accounting but, again, this isn’t a biopic. It’s a fable spruced up like an injected turkey that becomes more flavorful as the marinating juices slowly spread.
Their creation wouldn’t nearly be as bountiful if it were not for Kristen Stewart’s performance as Lady Di. Those who still see her as the mopish teen attracted to a sparking vampire need to move on. It’s been thirteen years. The TWILIGHT albatross is long gone. Stewart’s isn’t a pantomime portrayal, aside from the “Shy Di” head tilt she performs. Onset, the curtains are open and the theme of Diana is on full display. Her cloistered innocence and captive independence, her motherly warmth and spousal frigidity.
An emotional rollercoaster enhanced by Jonny Greenwood’s fluid score as it moves from classical to jazz to what sounds like chandlers as wind-chimes, SPENCER is an exceptional mood piece. In an aristocratic family where past and present are one and the same, future has no place at the table. That’s alright; a fast food restaurant is just up ahead.