Spencer- A Review

by | Dec 27, 2021 | Arts + Culture, Icons

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“A Fable From a True Tragedy.” reads the opening statement of the film. 

Throughout this film I was continually caught off-guard by how grueling it was… and how much I enjoyed it. 

Spencer is a must see for 2021/2022 – directed by Pablo Larraín and starring Kristen Stewart as the film’s central focus: Princess Diana. 

There’s buzz about a potential Oscar nomination for Stewart– one well deserved in my opinion. Before this, I’d only seen her as the star of “Twilight” where either through writing or acting, she failed to win me over. But in Spencer? She didn’t disappoint. 

Beyond the film’s notable lead actress, a solid congrats to costume designer Jacqueline Durrane for bringing Diana’s impressive wardrobe to life. In Spencer, Duranne pulls from the Chanel archives to recreate Princess Diana’s signature look, thrifts others for her authentic 80’s style, and brings royal elegance to life through her own originals like Diana’s Christmas dress.

Intentionality in Every Line

Unlike many historical films spotlighting a single icon, this film doesn’t cover Diana’s full life. Instead, Spencer takes place over the course of a tight three days- December 24th-26th in 1991. The film’s intent isn’t a full retelling of the royal family history. Instead- it drills down into the true psychological isolation Diana endured in her life and marriage. 

Think “Shining” esque entrapment paired with Tarantino-style tension. 

The focus stays on Diana with at least 90% of the dialogue given to Stewart as she speaks to herself, to barely responsive serving staff, and to imagined characters from the past. 

Some critics call the dialogue “whiny”. But a better description would be “unhinged”.

Our first view of Princess Diana is of her driving alone in her forest green porsche along the country roads of Norfolk- lost. Her first line:

“Where the fuck am I?”

With this, we see a princess who is out of step with the regiment and rituals of the royal family. 

My biggest takeaway from this masterpiece was it’s laser-focused intentionality.

Everything is planned. Everything has a purpose. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Princess Diana’s life, don’t expect Spencer to recount it. Instead, brace yourself for a painful and realistic depiction of the cruelty and tension forced on Diana by years of tradition, emotional isolation, and royal abuse.

Fetch the (Wire) Cutters

Spencer Review: Diana at Dinner

Royal survival is another historical theme central to this film. We see Diana is struggling to find her place in a world upheld by centuries of history and tradition. 

Another queen of England- Katherine Parr-survived Henry VIII through cunningness and determination. Her words were calculated, giving the illusion of blind support. 

But Princess Diana is not Katherine Parr. Instead, the film parallels her life with Kathrine Parr’s ill-fated predecessor (and distant relation to Princess Diana) Anne Boleyn. I found this heavy handed. But, all in all, it wasn’t completely unrealistic on how someone in Diana’s situation may have swung into fantasy to make sense of her purpose.

Over three days, Diana slips in and out of sanity.

The film does an excellent job conveying the blur. Not everything we see in Spencer is real. 

In one scene, bedroom curtains are sewn shut to keep the Princess from the prying paparazzi. The following morning? A close look in the background shows this was all imagined. In another scene, Stewart cuts away part of the flesh on her arm with the wire cutters she secured to break free from the property. But in the next moment? The blood stain is no more. 

Small details launch the viewer into the terrifying dream state Princess Diana faces through exhaustion, isolation, and malnutrition. 

In the first dinner scene, Han’s Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII hangs prominently above Queen Elizabeth. The wallpaper in Diana’s room? Yellow, no doubt a reference to the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gillman. 

Spencer is a Painful but Beautiful Film

Spencer Review: Diana and Maggie

Spencer shows Diana at her most vulnerable. The three day holiday forces her to reexamine who she is, and where she fits, in her role as mother to England’s royal heirs. Near the film’s end, Princess Diana asks how history will remember her. 

And as I walked out of the theatre, I reflected on how wrong we’ve been to gloss over the reality of being “The People’s Princess”

To my generation, she’s a Tiktok reference and a Childish Gambino line. My grandparents remember her legacy as a collectable Beanie Baby. For my millenial colleagues, she’s a fashion icon.

But all of these flat definitions sell Diana short of who she was as a human, as a woman, in the face of royal history. 

The finale of Spencer offers clarity. In this screenplay, Diana can’t live in between worlds. Stuck between a childhood home lost to history and a royal title she can’t support, Diana chooses to reclaim her happiness and break from royal tradition. 

Fans of The Crown, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Queen, will enjoy the film for its accurate depiction of Diana’s royal life. If like me, you’re looking for an emotionally realistic retelling of this tragedy, Spencer is the film for you.