I’ve been curious about seeing this since Kristen Stewart became a critical favorite at the start of award season. So when she was nominated for Oscars and the film finally dropped in HULU, I just had to check it out.
Going into the film I knew this wasn’t a standard biopic of the late Princess Diana, and from the title, I expect that the film would highlight on Diana’s personal connection with her own family as she deals with the breakdown of her marriage. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín seems to have a penchant for telling stories about famous historical figures, as he did with Jackie (as in Jacqueline Kennedy) and Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Neruda. I actually prefer biopics that focuses on a specific time frame of a person’s life, and here Larraín tackles Diana’s story as a psychological thriller as opposed to a conventional drama.
The film takes place at Sandringham House, Queen Elizabeth II’s private home where the royal family gather for Christmas holiday in 1991. It opens with the arrival of the royal guests, and we see Diana driving her own Porsche 911 on her own and getting lost on the way despite the fact that she actually grew up nearby. She saw a scarecrow wearing a jacket once belonged to her father and she walks through the field and retrieve it. It baffles Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris) and likely most viewers, given the erratic behavior Diana displays throughout the film.
A quick Google search would result in a bunch of fact vs fiction articles about the movie, though even a casual knowledge of Diana would make one realize most of what happens in the movie is make believe. In case one is not aware of it, the film’s epigraph tells us this is ‘a fable from a true tragedy’ so obviously the filmmakers take plenty of creative liberties in regards to what could’ve happened during this Royal Christmas event. Though some of the people depicted in the film are based on real people, there are also those that are amalgamation of certain people in the royal household the filmmakers have talked to, such as Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall) and Royal Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins).
The peculiar way Larraín shoots the film, complete with dissonant music is deliberately dizzying and often unpleasant, perhaps his way to get the viewers into Diana’s head and her state of mind at the time. She’s clearly disturbed and pained by Charles’ ongoing affair with Camilla Parker Bowles that she briefly glimpses during her stay, it’s not clear whether Camilla was actually there or it was just in Diana’s imagination. She’s also haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), as she obsess over the book left at her assigned room. I think one of the most bizarre moment is the hallucination during dinner where she imagines breaking her pearl necklace which falls into her soup and she begins to eat the pearl hastily. It’s quite well known that Diana suffered from bulimia and that’s a recurring theme in the film that I feel is a bit hyperbolic. But subtlety isn’t exactly what Larraín was going for here, for better for worse.
What I find most fascinating about the movie, and truly what makes it worth seeing for me, is Kristen Stewart’s performance. It’s not just the makeup and costumes, which were meticulously crafted to resemble the real ones, but it’s Stewart’s mannerism and speech which reportedly took months of training. According to IMDb trivia, even Diana’s former bodyguard and the real life Darren McGrady praised Stewart’s performance as being spot on. Now, for me who only had seen Diana from various press videos, what’s important is that she captured what we think Diana to be like and I believe Stewart did that, especially her vulnerability and melancholy. There’s a fine line between being whiny and actually miserable, and Stewart’s interpretation portrays Diana as being quite a tragic figure. Like Diana herself, Kristen has a mesmerizing quality about her. Her palpable charisma makes the film watchable even during the most tedious moments, and she could even overcome some clunky dialog written by Steven Knight.
Spencer is a fascinating character study but it’s not quite as deep nor profound as the filmmaker have you believe. The dream sequences, especially those involving Anne Boleyn are more strange and at times absurd rather than emotionally involving. I think the game night scene of Diana with her sons work better and shows the motherly side of someone who still has a lot of love for her family despite the painful ordeal she’s going through. Another notable scene is between Diana and Maggie at the beach, perhaps the only time Diana is shown as being happy and free. Maggie’s look somehow reminds me of The Expendables‘ Edna Mode which was modeled after costume designer Edith Head, not sure if that was intentional. SPOILER ALERT! (highlight to read) Not sure about Maggie’s confession that she’s in love with her, I wonder if that fictitious bit was added because of Stewart’s own sexual identity.
I understand that Larraín has a soft spot for Diana and wanted to make viewers feel what it must’ve felt like for her to be trapped in the ‘prison’ of the royal compound, but at times it made her seem like she’s the crazy one and her interpretation of Diana is a bit tough to warm up to. It’s interesting that Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is actually portrayed in a sympathetic way, even trying to appeal to Diana by saying that every single person born into the royal family has to do things they didn’t care to do in order to survive.
This is a film that beguiles and frustrates me in equal measure. I find myself being quite irritated watching the movie, mostly because of the directing style and the score, which obviously is deliberate so it’s not a diss against Jonny Greenwood who I think did an exceptional job scoring the Oscar-nominated The Power of the Dog. The costumes and set pieces are wonderful to look at, that white gown seen in the poster is absolutely breathtaking, kudos to costume designer Jacqueline Durran. The moody but stunning cinematography is done by Claire Mathon who’s been killing it lately with her exceptional work in Atlantics and Petite Maman.
So while I appreciate what the filmmaker is trying to do and some of the intriguing choices he made, ultimately the film didn’t quite work for me. I’m glad I saw it, mostly because of Stewart’s performance who carried the film from start to finish.
Have you seen SPENCER? Let me know what you think!