movie review

Spencer Is a Devastating Portrait of a Princess Too Sane to Play the Royals’ Game

Photo: Neon

This review originally ran during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. We are republishing it on the occasion of the film’s theatrical release.

Diana is always running late in Spencer. In the opening scenes of Pablo Larraín’s new movie, the Princess of Wales — played with remarkable translucence by Kristen Stewart — has gotten lost after deciding to make her own way to Sandringham, to the manor where the royal family gathers for their Christmas celebration. It’s a place she knows well, having been born in nearby Park House. But as a fretful adult in the world’s most scrutinized failing marriage, she finds herself unable to recognize the area in which she was once a carefree child. As everyone else, including her husband, Charles (Jack Farthing), and their children, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), arrives with the standard driver and security entourage, Diana wanders alone into a café, a hush falling as she asks the woman behind the counter, “Where am I?” It’s hard to miss, as metaphors go, though there’s more to Diana’s tardiness than a loss of a sense of self. In repeatedly arriving after the queen (Stella Gonet) to meals, to photos, and to the holidays themselves, Diana is disrupting the order of things. She’s exposing the arbitrary nature of the regimented ceremonies and traditions the family depends on to set itself apart from the rest of the world.

Spencer, a portrait of a tragic modern aristocrat dealing with the weight of public regard, is an obvious bookend to Larraín’s 2016 Jackie, in which Natalie Portman played, with brittle self-awareness, a just-widowed Jacqueline Kennedy in the same situation. But Jackie was a movie about the creation of American royalty, about how its protagonist carved her late husband’s presidency into national mythology through force of will and the power of image, enshrining him as a representative of a lost idyll rather than an all-too-human man. Spencer, which was written by Steven Knight, does the reverse, mining the implicit ridiculousness of the pretense that this group of fallible human beings somehow represents a country’s soul. Diana, humiliated by Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles and staggering from the ongoing media blitz, is treated as unreasonable, unruly, and on the verge of a breakdown, though it’s always clear her problem is that she’s too sane to play the game. “You have to be able to make your body do things you hate, for the good of the country,” Charles patiently explains to her in the one scene in which they’re alone together, as though this were only reasonable.

Diana can’t make her body do things she hates. She’s at war with her body throughout Spencer — to the point where the character, always jostling against the restrictions placed on her behavior, also literally jostles against the hallway walls like Isabelle Adjani in Possession with the intensity turned down. So many of the rituals she’s expected to comply with involve turning over control of her body, from the approved array of outfits that have been scheduled for her to the “all in good fun” weigh-in everyone must comply with to prove they’ve properly indulged over the holidays by gaining three pounds — a tradition dating back to 1847, and utter hell for someone whose eating is disordered. Diana’s bulimia becomes another way in which she fails to behave properly, every formal and informal meal an obstacle course to be navigated, with repeated scenes of the head chef, Darren (Sean Harris), barking out the ridiculously involved menus to his kitchen staff. In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, she imagines ripping the necklace she’s been gifted off her neck and swallowing the scattered pearls along with her soup. She darts away to vomit but soon there’s someone knocking at the door, always knocking at the door, not out of concern but to say that everyone’s waiting on her.

Spencer is as precise and intricate as a luxury timepiece, each piece fitting together perfectly, no matter how small. Sally Hawkins only has a few scenes as Maggie, Diana’s trusted dresser and confidant, but exudes such warmth and good humor that we miss her as much as Diana does when she goes away. As Alistar Gregory, a former major and clear company man tasked with keeping the press away, Timothy Spall is all pursed-mouth menace. But the film is Stewart’s to carry, and she does it by going less minimalist than is her habit and by allowing an awareness of the absurdity of Diana’s situation to seep in, even as she plays the woman’s suffering entirely straight. Diana’s is such a singular dilemma, that of the tormented woman trapped in line to be queen in the 1990s, that the only person able to relate within the movie itself is Anne Boleyn, who, played by Amy Manson, shows up in visions to offer her sympathy and warnings. In some ways, the alienating plushness of her troubles is the biggest hardship of them all for Diana. She can’t help treating the staffers surrounding her as colleagues instead of people who are paid to inform on her, no matter how fond they might be, and Stewart plays the moments in which Diana blurts out her feelings as akin to the way the character runs to the bathroom after meals.

And they are fond, despite their reservations and divided loyalties. It’s impossible not to like the movie’s version of Diana, who’s simply incapable of stiff-upper-lipping her way through her own misery, too guileless about sharing her emotions and about assuming everyone around her is being just as straightforward. Stewart might not look much like the actual woman, but she’s capable of recreating a sense of her sunshine-bright charisma, the way she felt a little too much like a star for a royal set accustomed to always being gazed at while never so gauche as to do anything to merit it. Diana, with her glamorous gowns and her taste for fast food, may be forever too much and not enough, but Spencer is just right.

Spencer Is the Tragic Princess Portrait of Our Dreams