Spencer: Portrait of a Lady on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
If you've been even a passive consumer of media in the last year and a half, it may feel like Princess Diana is omnipresent. After the fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown, which focused in large part on Diana’s entrée into the royal family and the rise and fall of her relationship with Prince Charles, you could be forgiven for experiencing some royal fatigue when it comes to the late Princess of Wales (and if you were unfortunate enough to catch the streaming release of the ill-conceived Broadway musical Diana, well, that’s on you). But Spencer, the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, proves there is still plenty of material to be derived from one of the most-discussed women in modern history.
Spencer’s setting is relatively familiar ground: the Royal Family’s Christmas 1991 retreat to Sandringham Estate, near the nadir of Diana’s marriage to Charles (Jack Farthing), the Prince of Wales and (still) future King of England. But this is not a traditional biopic, nor does it pretend to be (the opening title card bills it as “a fable based on a true tragedy”). Larraín presents less Diana as a person and more as our conception of her as an icon; accordingly, Spencer is less concerned with historical accuracy than with the interiority of its protagonist, and often resembles a ghost story more than a historical drama. The narrative thrust of the film is centered not around what exactly happened to Diana, but instead how she must have felt. On that score, it’s a smashing success.
In a pivotal scene, Charles tells Diana that there needs to be “two” of her, one for herself, and one for the public. That theme of duality is repeated throughout the film, particularly in later scenes when—spoiler alert—Diana begins seeing the ghost of Anne Boleyn, another royal consort with a famously troubled relationship with the monarchy. Larrain strings enough hints of magical realism like that to suggest that what we see is not always real. Not just in the obvious moments, like when Diana talks to the ghost of Boleyn or eats a string of giant pearls, but also in her showdowns with the family, the staff, and the paparazzi. Are the fractured emotions and barely concealed tears real? Or are they, like Boleyn and the pearls, physical manifestations of Diana’s emotional suffering that only the audience can see? The result is an absorbing emotional experience—provided that you can withstand its intentionally disorienting aesthetic and resistance to narrative literalism.
In several of his works (No; Neruda; Jackie), Larraín has interrogated the way that media narratives can shape public perception of notable figures, for better or worse. Like Natalie Portman’s Jackie O, Kristen Stewart’s Diana Spencer is a titanically famous woman inextricably bound to the global consciousness through fame, proximity to power, and later, tragedy. But in Spencer, he turns that interrogation inward, utilizing his skill at inserting the audience into his protagonist’s headspace to show us what the pressure of maintaining a public image can do to one’s psyche. Whereas in Jackie, the former First Lady was intent on controlling the media narrative to mythologize her late husband and cement the Camelot narrative into the American history books, here, the Princess of Wales has been stripped of any agency. She is a feather in a thunderstorm, buffeted on all sides by the suffocating pressures of the monarchy and the media and struggling to maintain her grip on her self identity.
These themes are further amplified by the meta-narrative created by casting Kristen Stewart to play Princess Diana. The parallels are obvious—Stewart, like the Diana, became globally famous at a young age and had a complicated (and at times, hostile) relationship with the press. When we see Diana straining to maintain her composure as a mob of photographers in Spencer, it’s hard not to remember the paparazzi furor that followed Stewart during the Twilight era of her career and feel both Stewart and Diana's discomfort as the lines between film and reality begin to blur.
I don’t think Stewart’s reputation as an actress is in further need of rehabilitation for those who have continued to follow her career post-Twilight. But for those who still insist on treating her as a punchline: after a decade of bearing unfair criticism for her work in that series, Stewart (like her erstwhile costar Robert Pattinson) reinvented herself as an arthouse darling, appearing in low-budget American indies and working with French auteurs, becoming the first American actress in history to win a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) and gaining global respect among cinephiles and film critics in the process. But Spencer doesn’t just utilize Stewart’s considerable strengths as an actor. Larraín cleverly weaponizes her perceived limitations and flaws, hanging her entire performance—and by extension, the entire film—on the anxious mannerisms, the darting eyes, the quivering voice: stretching them out like a thin veneer barely concealing fraying nerves. It’s not the kind of uncanny mimicry that is so often praised in more standard biopics, but it is a deeply affecting and emotionally resonant performance that should bring Stewart the mainstream American accolades that have thus far eluded her.
Unfortunately, if Spencer has one glaring weakness, it’s Steven Knight’s screenplay. Although Knight wisely restricts the setting to a three-day period rather than attempting to cram her entire life into one film, his dialogue is often quite on the nose, and explicit and repetitive restating of the film's themes in particular are rather heavy-handed. But Larraín’s muscular direction and Stewart’s engrossing performance are more than enough to overcome the script's shortcomings.
They are assisted by an able supporting cast (including the likes of Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Sean Harris, each playing both the humanity and symbolism of their respective members of the household staff) and enhanced by the exquisite crafts on display: the gauzy cinematography by Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Claire Mathon suggests a dreamlike atmosphere that amplifies the audience's uncertainty as to whether anything we are seeing is real or imagined. Likewise, Jonny Greenwood’s mischievous score is intentionally disorienting, taking unexpected musical turns that mirror Diana’s fragmented psyche.
And Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are literally breathtaking—not just stunning in their beauty but effective in their construction, squeezing the air and the life out of Stewart’s Diana. When the rack of preselected outfits, painstakingly arranged by meal and event, arrives in Diana’s suite at Sandringham, the camera lingers over the handwritten labels affixed to each hanger: “Christmas Day Church,” “Boxing Day Lunch,” “Christmas Eve Dinner,” all of them demarcated for the P.O.W.—the Princess of Wales, yes, but also a prisoner of war, desperate to break free from the Royal Family’s orbit and the paparazzi’s glare. The clothes, like the house, the title, and the marriage, are nothing less than a gilded cage for their frail prisoner. Her only respite from this torment are the scenes with her children, the Princes William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), which allow for glimpses of the warmth that made her the People’s Princess (proving conclusively that Kristen Stewart has finally learned how to talk to children) and hinting towards the potential for her eventual escape.
Spencer won't be for everyone—like much of Larraín's work, it's polarizing, and given its disorienting and surreal presentation of Diana's life as a sort of dark fairy tale, it's easy to see why. But for me, the one-two punch of Jackie and Spencer has catapulted Larraín into the upper tier of currently working auteurs, and I can’t wait to see which famously suffering icon (Marilyn? Taylor? Meghan?) he chooses to complete this unofficial trilogy.
Spencer is in theaters now.