- “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart follows the late Princess Diana over three days.
- The events almost break her spirit but ultimately inspire her to take back control of her life.
- “Spencer” also sheds light on the cruelty of the British royal institution.
At the beginning of the new Princess Diana biopic “Spencer,” a disclaimer pops up onscreen. “This is a fable from a true trad egy,” it reads.
The events depicted onscreen, led by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, are inspired but not wholly faithful to the winter of 1991 at Sandringham House — one of Queen Elizabeth II’s private residences in Norfolk, England.
Princess Diana is familiar with Sandringham. Long before she was a royal, she was born and raised at Park House, a property located very close to the Queen’s private residence within the estate.
And at the beginning of “Spencer,” Diana, now the subject of the world’s fascination, returns to the estate to spend the Christmas break with the British royals. It’s here, legend claims, that Diana made the decision to end her marriage to Prince Charles (“Poldark” actor Jack Farthing).
Over the course of three days — Christmas eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day — we follow Diana closely and witness the events that almost break her spirit but ultimately inspire her to take back control of her life.
‘Spencer’ emphasizes the British royal family’s cruelty toward Princess Diana
There’s a lot of time spent in Larraín’s film establishing the cruelty of the British royal institution.
Upon Diana’s arrival at Sandringham, for example, a scale is set up for her to be weighed. One of the Queen’s courtiers claims that this is part of an archaic tradition that cannot be missed, but he also seems to take pride in the discomfort it brings Diana, who at the time had an eating disorder — something that is regularly jabbed at by members of the royal family.
During breakfast one morning, Prince Charles crudely turns to an excited Diana and asks her if she can try not to “regurgitate her breakfast into the lavatory bowl” before the afternoon.
The film also carefully depicts the amount of labor required by cooks, cleaners, and dressers to keep royal life going. We see the opening of boxes, food preparation, the express transport of clothing.
This methodical plotting quickly establishes the absurdity of the world Diana inhabited and why it was so incompatible with her.
What’s Hot: Stewart is an engrossing and passionate Diana, whose loneliness screams out on the screen
Diana’s onscreen alienation is heightened by a piercing score by British musician Johnny Greenwood. The score also provides the perfect soundtrack to the deteriorating mind of Stewart’s Diana, who we watch fall deeper into a haze over the three-day trip.
When we first meet Diana she’s lost after ditching her driver and security detail to drive up to the estate on her own. When she gets to the estate, however, we see that she’s also struggling to decide which direction her life should be going in.
Her marriage to Prince Charles is shot, and the attention she’s attracting from the press and a world of adoring fans has made her enemy No. 1 to the crown or, as Meghan and Harry described it, The Firm. And its head honcho — Queen Elizabeth II — wants rid as quickly as possible.
Here Larraín starts to playfully indulge conspiracy about Diana’s future and The Firm’s plans for it.
“Do you think they’ll kill me?” Diana says at one point.
In the film, Diana is haunted by Anne Boleyn, a wife in the royal family who was beheaded for treason
There’s also the running theme of Anne Boleyn — the second wife of King Henry VIII who was beheaded for supposed treason. A book about Boleyn’s life and death is left on Diana’s bed before she arrives at Sandringham. She suspects the Queen mother’s new hawkish henchman placed it there as a warning and at the film’s end, we discover that she was on to something.
At one point, one of the Queen’s valets is even informed that Diana had journeyed into her old, boarded home on the Sandringham estate. The house has been sealed off because it has dangerous rotten floors. In response, the valet tells the guards to “let her be.”
As Diana’s mental deterioration deepens, Boleyn appears to her in visions and offers her advice. “Go! run!” Boleyn pleads with Diana. These sightings become more frequent as Diana falls deeper, suffocated by the Firm and its goons, and the history of those who’ve dared to challenge it.
On Christmas Day, she’s close to taking her own life when clarity hits and decides that she must leave this family behind. It’s clear that she’s always known this, but after some powerful words of encouragement from her dresser, played brilliantly by the great Sally Hawkins, she knows she now has the power and strength to do so.
All of this is masterfully depicted by Stewart, who’s a perfect Diana. Yes, as many suspected from the film’s trailer, her British accent is pin-point. Stewart is also highly adept at the upper-class pout for which Diana was famous.
Although she does lay it on thick. (I’m British but I was born the month after Diana died, so I didn’t grow up with her image.) Did she really move her neck like that? Nevertheless, Stewart is not only convincing but engrossing.
Bottom line: ‘Spencer’ is Stewart’s golden ticket
In recent years, Stewart has become a stalwart of arthouse and European cinema. She’s currently the only American actor to win a French Oscars, the Cesar award, which she picked up for a supporting role in French director Olivier Assayas’s 2014 film “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
Despite her A-list superstardom, Stewart has yet to have her big, leading Hollywood moment. All of the recent Stewart star vehicles — both studio and independent — have unfortunately been duds.
“Charlie’s Angels,” in 2019 for example, was a flashy but weak adaptation. The biopic “Seberg,” in which Stewart played the legendary actress and civil right campaigner, Jean Seberg, was cheap and ill concieved.
With “Spencer,” Stewart has finally struck gold.