Movie Review – Spencer

Spencer (2021)
Written by Steven Knight
Directed by Pablo Larrain

I can’t say I was ever enamored with Diana. I was very aware of her as a child and into my teens, but the whole English royal family thing just wasn’t all that interesting. I still find it odd that even ceremonial monarchies still exist. What a terrible drain on the people to keep funding such a meaningless thing. I was interested in this movie because it is helmed by Pablo Larrain, who directed the fantastic Jackie, a biopic from Jackie Kennedy’s POV. I think Larrain does an excellent job of centering women who, while seen as iconic, are often not given a voice in their own narratives. They are often the spouse of X rather than a person unto their own. So I was looking forward to seeing Diana fleshed out as a multi-dimensional person.

The film takes place on the days leading up to Christmas 1991. Diana (Kristen Stewart) arrives at the Queen’s estate in Norfolk amid the impending collapse of her marriage with Charles (Jack Farthing). He’s recently been outed by the press as having an affair with a lover from his youth, revealing the marriage’s cracks. Diana finds solace with her children, playing games of make-believe with them, and finds kindness from the estate staff who are discreetly on her side. However, Diana’s mental health is degrading from the media scrutiny and the brutally harsh and cold reception she receives from her in-laws. The movie is a slice from a famous person’s life and a glimpse into what her mind may have been going through in these final days of her marriage.

I’m not really sure what the point of Spencer was. When the script focuses on Diana and her interactions with the royal family, I was the most interested. Seeing the chilling dynamic between everyone is pretty fascinating and certainly makes you feel sympathy for the woman. But the movie has many other things happening, and I’m not sure what this is meant to say about Diana. Not helping is Kristen Stewart’s distracting performance. I can tell she is trying to sound and behave like Diana, but it did not come across as anything but an exaggerated caricature. Her physicality in the role reminded me of the numerous TikToks where young people mock her physical performance in the Twilight movies. So when you combine that performance with a script that meanders off into confusing side moments makes it feel much less cohesive than Jackie.

We have three fantastic British performers in the supporting cast: Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Sean Harris. They represent members of the staff who all have different levels of relationship with Diana. Hawkins is the closest as her personal dresser, and Spall has the most significant distance as a new addition. Spall’s Major Gregory is clearly placed by the Queen to ensure Diana doesn’t embarrass the family. This is due to the woman’s bulimia, addressed by the film as a means of exerting control in situations where Diana often has none. We never hear the actress playing the Queen speak, only giving judging glances at specific moments, and her voice is represented by Major Gregory. He relays her wishes so that the Queen never has to.

I fully support breaking the biopic mold, which has become so formulaic and dull as of late. Larrain is genuinely doing some exciting things with how he chooses to approach the lives of notable & historical figures, particularly those who have an iconic place in our culture. However, I think this film slights its subject quite a bit, framing Diana as a constant victim and never really showing us her inner strength. Members of Diana’s inner circle have made statements that the way she is portrayed in Spencer has horrified them. In Jackie, I got the sense she was a stronger person than the world perceived her, but after watching Spencer, I have to say it makes me think she was a very fragile, broken person. 

Larrain is playing with the line between truth and fantasy, which is why the slips into Diana’s mind works. This isn’t necessarily literal, but that’s a tricky tightrope to walk. There’s a sense of the stream of consciousness to the film, moving in the same frenetic way Diana’s must-have in these last moments of her marriage, clinging to her children and the warmth of the staff to sustain her. Spencer is a deeply flawed movie, but I suspect it would be impossible to make anything but that when your subject is such a mythologized figure as Diana.

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