Fuck is one of the first words Pablo Larraín’s version of Diana Spencer says. So you know right away that this will not be your average portrait of the beloved, lamented princess. Spencer is therefore a fictionalized version of a real moment in Diana’s life. It is precisely this duality that ultimately plays tricks on the film, despite the wonderful and soon-to-be award-winning performance by Kristen Stewart.
‘A fable of a true tragedy’ is what we get as a message at the beginning of the film. A group of men enter a field at a militaristic pace, a kind of bunker. There they open boxes with POW on them. Only they are not soldiers in a war zone, but cooks. They carry no weapons against prisoners-of-war, but food for the Prince and Princess of Wales. Christmas is approaching at Sandringham’s estate, where the British Royal Family will spend the end of the year. The chef’s march is accompanied by a volley of almost tragic violin music. The tone is immediately set. Because not only the staff arrives, the royals themselves are also on their way. Except Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper , Happiest Season). She is lost in the rural area around Sandringham. And sometimes a person swears.
Only this is not the common image that we know of Diana. Spencer is set during a turning point in her life. She just learned that Prince Charles (Jack Farthing, now starring in The Lost Daughter ) is having an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. And she doesn’t know what she wants to do about it yet, because she is not only a wife, but also a mother and royal. And especially that royal role suffocates her. Changing without the help of a servant? Can not. Keep the curtains open during the day? Also not. On arrival, members of the royal family are even weighed, as they have to bulk up from the festive meals out of respect for the monarchy.
It is mainly the mental aspect of her public role that plays tricks on Diana. Sandringham is not far from Park House, where the princess grew up. Her family was also noble, but on that estate she had a freedom she hadn’t known since her engagement to Charles. The lure of her parental home and her souring relationship with her husband bring out the rebellious, desperate and frustrated side in her. She runs away whenever she can, breaks the rules and becomes more and more reckless…or freer?
So many people were so fond of Princess Diana that after her death, that overwhelmingly positive image was almost never touched. Pablo Larrain dares to do that. No one is perfect, of course, and until Meghan Markle came along, there wasn’t much talk about the effect that the royal family’s golden cage has. You become more the image of a person than a real person who wants to live a life of your own. Larraín lets Diana go wild with Kristen Stewart. That contrast made Spencer instantly more compelling than Jackie , who I admit I wasn’t too much of a fan of.
But there is also a downside. This fictional image is too stuck in the same point of view to be captivating all the time. Diana’s urge to escape goes so far as to threaten to hurt her otherwise precious children as well. She almost loses grip on reality and that’s where the film loses me in the run-up to the end. It’s almost a deconstruction of Diana, with its pros and cons. Larraín has a specific style, and sometimes you have to get used to that. He uses elements of surrealism and almost gothic horror to lend force to his version, and that, along with the ending of the film, makes Spencer worth seeing in the end.
The other big draw is Kristen Stewart. She left the yoke of Twilight behind her for a long time, but with this interpretation she can now finally convince almost everyone of her ability. Even though she doesn’t really look like Diana physically, she does evoke her. Her attitude, facial expression and certain intonations are not an exaggerated attempt at imitation, and that is positive.
The film’s visual style also lends Stewart a hand, with the princess’ beautiful and sometimes iconic costumes and hairstyles. The captive feel is further enhanced thanks to the near-square aspect ratio and the high-brightness, almost-overexposed imagery. Appropriate for someone who was always too much in the spotlight. Stewart’s natural nervous energy fits well with this rendition, although she might go a bit too far at times. And yet this might be the rendition to watch for an Oscar statuette.