Set in 1991, ‘Spencer’ is a haunting reimagining of the tense three-day Christmas weekend in the life of Princess Diana which she spent with the royal family at the Sandringham Estate, a preposterously large six-storey country mansion that stands on 20,000 acres off the Norfolk Coast.
This biographical film about Princess Diana. presented as “A fable from a true tragedy”, is mounted like a psychological drama full of dream sequences, internal and external pain, metaphor-laden scenes, and dialogues, showing her brooding moods.
The narrative begins with Diana sporting her blonde bob-cut hair and driving her little green car alone through the countryside lost in the area where she grew up as neighbours to the royal family. This clearly tells us that she is on her own, and this is no accident, and that she has lost parts of herself over the years, trying to live up to expectations.
Once on royal grounds, with her two sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) by her side, Diana is trapped in a loveless marriage to a diffident Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), who openly betrays her.
Feeling effectively imprisoned, Diana’s anxiety and depression start to get the better of her when she finds a biography of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), the wife of Henry the VIII who was accused of adultery and beheaded so that her husband could marry once again, and she begins to find in Boleyn a kindred spirit.
As she’s robbed of her privacy outside and inside the opulent estate, the walls of the Gothic palace feel as if they are closing in on her. She loses her grip on reality until she can break out and save herself.
The director’s vision is not a straightforward interpretation of the princess’ displeasure with the royal traditions and holiday spectacle. He shows us Diana during her most vulnerable moments: weak, nasty, and most of all, self-destructive.
She is not the amiable People’s Princess or Queen of Hearts whom the world adored. Instead, she is prickly, self-absorbed and self-pitying, spoiled, and brattish, but while the cold seeps into every frame, we warm up to her, especially when she is with her children exuding maternal love. Also, the blending of her anguish, real and imagined, is intended to keep the audience uneasy, and it succeeds.
The dialogues — “Beauty is useless, beauty is clothing”, “There is no future here, only past and present” and “I watch to make sure others do not see” — are rather on-the-face. They feel like the pronouncements of an era, defining depth and sharpness.
Kristen Stewart proves entirely compelling as the moody Diana. She effectively delivers her best with her doe-eyed, pitying tilt of the head, and the little upscale girl voice, but this is no impression. It is more an interpretation of a classic role, bringing layers of human complexities to a figure who, for all the myth that surrounds her, still looms large in the global conscience. As for her accent, there are a few moments that can be overlooked.
Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, and Sally Hawkins in supporting roles have their moments on screen. Jack Farthing appears as a poor caricature of Prince Charles.
Overall, Larrain’s ‘Spencer’ is much more impressive than Oliver Hirshbiegel’s 2013 film ‘Diana’ starring Naomi Watts.
–By Troy Ribeiro