There are few public figures who have been as beloved and internationally famous as Diana, Princess of Wales. Her life was cut tragically short when she died in a car accident at the age of thirty-six. The celebrity royal has had portions of her story dramatized in many projects, including a recent portrayal by Emma Corrin on Netflix’s The Queen and the 2013 film Diana, starring Naomi Watts in the title role. Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is something different, a profile of Diana’s legacy but one that shines a particularly bright light on her individuality, invoking her maiden name to title an invented tribute.
It’s Christmas 1991, and Diana (Kristen Stewart) is very late to the Sandringham Estate, where the entire royal family will gather for a series of prescribed rituals and activities. Diana has ditched her escorts and driven herself, and when she arrives, she continues to shirk tradition and do things the way she wants. Feuding with her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), Diana finds solace in the company of her two young sons, Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry), and her loyal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), but must contend with the watchful eye of Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), who has been tasked with ensuring that she stays in line.
There is much that is known about Diana and much that has also been imagined based on extensive rumors and accounts. That both she and her husband had affairs before the dissolution of their marriage has been publicly accepted, as has the fact that they become very estranged prior to that point because of their vastly different perspectives. This film takes considerable liberties in conjuring up conversations and confrontations, using what has been said and written over the years as a tableau for a compelling and intriguing fable about the final cracks that precipitated their divorce.
Those who have seen director Pablo Larraín’s previous films know that he is exceptionally skilled at creating worlds that feel as if they are being seen from the perspective of those who inhabit them. Chilean films like No, Neruda, and Ema allow their protagonists to fully embrace their circumstances and transmit to audiences the feelings they have and the beliefs they hold. His biggest international film, Jackie, is the most fitting comparison for this project, giving a woman of great renown – and some controversy – a platform to have her story told with an emphasis on both respect and reputation. Both may not have been authorized biographies or based entirely on actual events, but they present firm, fascinating portraits of two of the most famous women in recent history.
Like Natalie Portman in Jackie, this film is all about Stewart. Known initially for her performance in the Twilight series, Stewart has grown considerably over the years, impressing greatly as a collaborator of director Olivier Assayas, first with Clouds of Sils Maria and then again in Personal Shopper. As Diana, she dons a purposeful accent and an elegant costume complete with her signature blond hair, and it feels as if she has truly become this woman, who is so lost within a world that she doesn’t wish to be in, trying desperately to regain control of her life while others expect so much from her. It’s a formidable turn assisted by a talented ensemble around her, including the dependable Spall and Sean Harris as the sympathetic head chef.
Larraín brings a familiar eye for décor and beautiful color that manifests itself in very specific and memorable palette choices that enhance each scene. The camera dwells on the vastness of what it can see and the relative insignificance of Diana within it all before zooming in on her and making it seem as if she’s the only thing within its lens. It’s an immersive experience that should make audiences feel as if they can come as close as possible to experiencing what Diana must have felt like both during that time and in much of her life as a royal. There are certain narrative choices, like a hallucinated Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), that are strange and questionable, but there’s no denying the allure and effect of this immersive profile.
Here’s the trailer of the film.
Spencer opens exclusively in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 5th.