If it is a strange, borderline unethical act to tell the story of a wronged woman who cannot tell her own story while she is still alive — Britney Spears and the numerous documentaries about her conservatorship released this year come to mind) — then it’s even stranger to do it after that woman has died and before she has been fully resigned to history. Spencer, from director Pablo Larraín and writer Steven Knight, mostly succeeds because it acknowledges this strangeness and weaponizes it. “Based on a true story” becomes “a fable based on a true tragedy.” What seems like a play on expectations makes all the difference in the world.
Fictionalizing a three-day Christmas holiday in 1991 when Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) confronts a life-changing decision for the sake of her own health and sanity, Spencer is not exactly subtle but it doesn’t have to be. The surreal life of royalty is heightened to absurdity in its first moments, when a military convoy ludicrously delivers all the fine, luxurious and (most importantly) organic food the royal family will be consuming during their stay at Sandringham. Every box is emblazoned with ER — Elizabeth Regina — and a sign in the kitchens reminds staff to keep noise at a minimum because THEY CAN HEAR YOU. It’s completely unrelatable. It’s undoubtedly how the royals still live now.
Diana’s story is a familiar one even when it is not fully hers. Even before the world knew the full extent of her nightmare, she was always the naive girl who believed she was marrying into a fairy-tale life and realized too late that she had been imprisoned by it. Stewart’s Diana is past this realization and, during the course of the film, comes to grips with it. She is a caged, lonely animal grasping at whatever freedom she can find, whether it is driving her own car and getting lost in the British countryside or buying silly, forbidden Christmas presents for her sons at a petrol station. She bristles against the control the royal institution forces upon her and the hypocrisies it refuses to acknowledge through the only thing she can control — the slow self-destruction of her own body. But there is barely anything left of her to destroy.
Always a fascinating actor, Stewart has never been better than she is here as Diana has to decide what she can do to save what’s left of her. She embodies Diana with a composed ferocity that is uniquely Stewart’s but feels right for a woman in Diana’s situation. Not to be lost in the hellish anxiety of Diana’s every waking moment surrounded by her husband’s family and the servants who openly spy on her is her humor. Diana knows this life is absurd, so she hits back at it just as absurdly. Although Stewart has had several comedic roles at this point in her career, I’m not sure she has ever been this funny. It’s a difficult balance between laughing to keep from crying and crying to keep from screaming, but Stewart finds it and does it beautifully.
Stewart’s performance is the stand-out feature of Spencer, to be sure, and supporting turns from Sally Hawkins (Maggie, Diana’s dresser and only friend), Jack Farthing (Prince Charles), Jack Nielen (Prince William), Freddie Spry (Prince Harry), Sean Harris (Darren, a kindly chef) and Timothy Spall (Major Gregory, an equerry at Sandringham) give her ample material to work with to show her range. Spall gives perhaps the most chilling performance in the film as a man who takes his oath to protect the Crown so seriously that he will utilize psychological warfare to remind Diana of her place as casually as he will choose not to intercede when it becomes clear that she might attempt suicide. He protects the Institution, not the people. If Diana becomes a casualty, so be it.
Spencer also looks perfect, thanks to the combined efforts of Claire Mathon (cinematography), Guy Hendrix Dyas (production design) and Jacqueline Durran (costume design). Jonny Greenwood’s score is appropriately unsettling as well, though from a personal standpoint it’s not my favorite from him. And yet all of this outstanding work doesn’t exactly coalesce into a great movie. Larraín’s direction keeps Diana firmly in the forefront but Knight’s script also holds her at a remove, which makes the pacing a bit of a challenge toward the middle of the movie. It’s a shame that the film as a whole never quite meets what Stewart brings to it. Even then it hardly matters simply because she is so great. If anyone is going to win an Oscar for playing Princess Diana, it is certainly going to be her.
Princess Diana always seems to be the woman of the moment. This is true even 24 years after her untimely death, as her life still affects current events through her sons and fictionalized versions of her story become fodder for awards season. Although it’s something of a moral quandary, that these fictional Dianas haunt the real institution that mistreated her so badly is a good thing. History has let other bad royals off the hook for worse crimes simply through the passage of time, but this ghost will not be so easily forgotten. Diana survived until she didn’t. Past tense. In this movie, at least, she gives herself the miracle of the present tense: Diana survives.
Spencer was screened at the 2021 Heartland International Film Festival and opens in theatrical release beginning Friday, Nov. 5.