This is the first time seeing a work from Chilean director, Pablo Larraín, who’s not unfamiliar with biopics as he worked on Jackie (2016). That film received three nominations at the 89th Academy Awards back in 2017. It appears that Larraín wants to recreate the biographical magic with Spencer, and it was a tragedy I believe audiences should not miss.
I will preface in saying that if one were to go into the film not knowing a little backstory between the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, they will probably view the film slightly differently, but will ultimately reach the same conclusion that Royal Family enthusiasts like myself would see by the time the credits scroll. I would implore all moviegoers to go see the film with the psychological drama elements that it presented.
The opening shot of Spencer begins with the text scroll, “A Fable From A True Tragedy.” The following three days takes place approximately in December 24-26, 1991. The eerie violins begin screeching as film begins to takes the audience to the main setting: the Sandringham House (the private residence located in Norfolk, United Kingdom most notably for where Queen Elizabeth II celebrates Christmas every year).
The dialogue begins in the House kitchen, where the Royal Head Chef, Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), orders his staff to start prepping the ingredients for the Christmastime meals. The scene cuts to Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana driving on her own, lost, and stumbling into a random gas stop to ask about where she is—immediately, Stewart perfects the walk, the mannerisms of the head tilt and surprisingly, the English accent, for her portrayal of Diana.
The camera cuts back to the House as the head butler, Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) and other house staff greet the appalling Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and his splendid two sons: Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry). Diana is perplexed to notice her father’s burgundy coat dressed on the scarecrow, staring and debating to get the coat out in the middle of the field.
This is where she says to the concerned McGrady who passed by on the road, “Will they kill me, you think,” as she retrieves her family heirloom jacket. The next shot of the house shows a beautiful aerial shot of the estate as the Queen’s motorcade arrives. Sooner or later, Diana arrives in her car as the title finally appears with an aerial tracking shot of the House.
“This Christmas movie is a symphony of clashing two different music styles and two opposing families: Spencer vs the Royal Family.”
I saw these opening scenes as a great setup for what follows in the film. The things Diana says throughout the film gives many hints of the tension between her and the rest of the Royal Family. I saw this was a more thrilling, tense start to the film, especially if audiences go into the theater not knowing anything about the real Princess Diana. It makes you think about Diana and Charles’ marriage, “Oh, this is gonna be a Gone Girl scenario where the wife is actually gone.” I was shocked they never mentioned Camilla’s name at all, but I guess it does give a sense of mystery to the unnamed other woman.
I never would have drawn parallels to the tragic story of the murdered wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, to the life of Diana, until they make the reference in the film. It adds to the nuance Diana was growing more mentally ill as the story continued. Seeing the up-close shots of her struggling with her bulimic disorder was both disturbing and saddening as she shoves mounds of food in her mouth, barehanded, only to forcefully vomit it out later. What made this even more creepy is that the overseeing Gregory stood and watched her do this, from behind her, for like 15-20 seconds until finally speaking up to let her know he was there.
The peaceful end of the film with Princess Diana eating KFC with her children is so powerful to see how this humble woman of royalty just wanted to have some freedom to do what she wanted and spend time with her kids. The whole time left me wanting to reach into the cinema screen to tell her to leave these fools, let’s go eat some KFC or McDonald’s and you should probably see a therapist for the toxic environment you faced in all those ten years being a part of the Royal Family. If only I could be there.
My overall impression can be summarized through my enjoyment of Spencer’s immaculate score—a pristine mix of violins, a piano, mixed with a jazz band, was riveting to my ears. Every time Diana was trying to regain control of herself, the jazz music would play versus when the tension grew with the violins. Also, there is sometimes no background music, so it made the scenes even more haunting and unsettling for me. This Christmas, psychological movie is simply a symphony of clashing two different music styles and two opposing families: Spencer vs the Royal Family.
I believe this performance from Stewart really let her shine and pushed her acting capacities for this role, especially as an American actress, playing a British icon—a truly Oscar-worthy performance. All the elements of the film dissected Princess Diana’s psyche carefully and realistically; I was not able to tell what fact from fiction was. The one hour and 51-minute film only covered three days in the life of Princess Diana but gave me enough of an experience to share in her life’s marathon of anxiety and paranoia. If you enjoy biopics, Royal Family drama and psychoanalysis like I do, you should definitely see Spencer.