Joe’s review published on Letterboxd:
Spencer isn’t a period piece or even a biopic in the traditional sense- it’s a horror film, both of the psychological and haunted house variety, more Get Out than The Crown. Be prepared for a tale of claustrophobia, gaslighting and despair set in a cold, dank, depressing series of grand rooms and poorly-lit corridors. A fictionalised (very fictionalised) account- a “fable from a true story”, as the title card has it- the film covers three miserable, tense, lonely days in the life of Princess Diana, as spent in the company of her Royal in-laws over Christmas at Sandringham, at a time when her marriage to Prince Charles was dramatically collapsing and, not unrelated, both her sense of paranoia and her problems with eating disorders were getting worse and worse.
Pablo Larrain directs this film brilliantly (aided by the superb cinematography of A Portrait of a Lady On Fire's DP Claire Mathon), the Chilean director bringing an outsider’s eye to the almost otherworldly weirdness that is the Royal family. This is, of course, accentuated by the fact that Diana was herself, in many respects, an outsider, a vivid, complex person who never fit in with the stuffy, cold, stoic worldview that the House of Windsor demanded of her. Through her (and this film is entirely from Diana’s perspective) he and writer Steven Knight capture so well the utter strangeness of this place, the heightened sense of unreality, that it might feel like an absurdist comedy if it weren’t for the audience’s advance knowledge of Diana’s ultimate fate- knowledge which colours almost every interaction with a sense of foreboding. A prominently-placed sign in the Sandringham kitchen (watched over by a droll, mischievous Sean Harris) warns the “help” not to make too much noise: “they” can hear you (indeed, the sense that everyone is listening in on everyone else is a frequently-recurring theme that speaks to the level of paranoia that isn’t limited just to Diana). Meanwhile, on her arrival at Sandringham (fashionably late, of course), Diana is forced to weigh herself by Timothy Spall’s stern equerry- “just a bit of fun”, he drawls. Is this really a traditional Royal family game as she is told (the idea is that you weigh yourself upon your exit- the more weight you put on the more fun you must have had), or is this a weird, misguided attempt at an intervention regarding Diana’s weight loss? Or perhaps some sort of power play by Charles? This is the sort of film which, by putting you so strongly into Diana’s headspace, ends up making the audience almost as paranoid and uncertain as she herself is, an approach which even worms its way into the brilliant set-design, evoking The Shining in its strange, nonsensical geography and endless corridors. Later, we witness a formal dinner at which Diana thinks that everyone else is staring at her. Jonny Greenwood’s score (jazzily excellent throughout) reaches an almost unbearable pitch, a cacophony of scraping cutlery and strings, and Diana, to our horror, takes off her pearl necklace (a symbol of her husband’s adulterous betrayal) and bites down- hard. You can feel the sense of release in each crunch- and yet the next scene shows Diana with pearl necklace still present and correct. How much of what we have just seen was the reality, and what was the fantasy? And at this point, does the difference even matter?
The film continues- and in large part, successfully sustains- this level of fever pitch, collapsing past, present and future together in dizzying fashion. Larrain tiptoes up to the line of farce but never quite crosses it, in a way that reminded me of Robert Altman’s Images, another tale of a woman unsure whether or not “they” are out to get her. Therefore this is, ultimately, a deep-dive into a troubled woman’s crumbling mind. The central question: are the Royals trying to punish Diana, or, in their own misguided way, are they attempting to help her? At one point they somewhat cruelly arrange for Diana’s only ally in the house (played by the always magnificent Sally Hawkins) to be sent away; it later transpires that the Queen has bought up Diana’s old family home, but has employed guards and barbed wire around the estate, possibly to prevent Diana accessing it. Meanwhile, after Charles finds out that Diana has been changing her clothes in full view of an open wondow (and thus the long-lenses of the waiting paparazzi), she finds that her curtains have been sown up. The film plays coy as to motives, leaving enough ambiguity to support either interpretation, although whether they are being “cruel to be kind” or simply cruel, there is little doubt that either way the result is Diana’s isolation and alienation.
The portrayal of Diana is a real high-wire act and I think that Kirsten Stewart completely sells it, portraying brilliantly all sides of her, good and bad: her passion, her volatile temper, her ability to connect with people and her love for her children (the scenes she shares with the young William and Harry practically overflow with genuine love and warmth, in stark contrast to the rest of the film). If Stewart doesn’t always look or sound perfectly like the woman herself, she more than feels like her, and although it is a little jarring at first to see Bella from Twilight take on such an iconic role, it is to Stewart’s immense credit that after about five minutes I stopped noticing- she just disappears into the role so completely. Even insofar as there is occasional stiltedness in the delivery of the dialogue, or indeed over-the-top theatricality, it works because here is woman whose whole life was, to some extent, a performance (the collapsing of the public and the private self is a major theme), trapped in an environment where nobody is able to, or allowed to, honestly express their emotions.
There are aspects of the film which I am less enamoured by. The much too heavy use of clunky, portentous symbolism for one thing (the film literally opens with a shot of a bird lying dead in the middle of a road for example); for another, the repeated comparison between Diana and Anne Boleyn, which Knight and Larrain overuse- the comparison in and of itself is clever, but by the third or fourth time she sees Boleyn’s ghost (at one point appearing to actually “become” her) we think yes okay we get it. There is also a clumsy and rather misguided sub-plot where Sally Hawkins’ character suddenly declares her love for Diana, which seems to come out of absolutely nowhere. However these are relatively minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, because when Spencer is on top form, it is an absolutely mesmerising piece of speculative fiction: the above-mentioned dinner scene, which drips with tension and self-loathing; a trip to a haunted house which ends with an unexpected trip into an alternate universe where an empowered Diana is at will to cavort around Sandringham, dancing down the corridors wearing (amongst other things) that “fuck you” black dress; and of course, the ending, which seems like a victory on the surface, but one which the audience knows will be short-lived. Bold, brash, weird, poetic and genuinely moving- this is absolutely a film worth checking out.