Home Arts & Entertainment A review of “Spencer,” the historical tragedy of Princess Diana

A review of “Spencer,” the historical tragedy of Princess Diana

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Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in "Spencer." (Neon/TNS)

By Joseph Poulos

“Spencer” is a film about the late Princess Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, as she tries to survive a stuffy three-day weekend at the opulent Sandringham House with the British Royal family. 

Throughout the film, Diana is battling an eating disorder and severe depression due to the rigid routine structure of her life as a princess. Even so, she is “The People’s Princess” and is followed everywhere by photographers wishing to catch a glimpse of her.

Director Pablo Larraín is clear about his intentions right from the start. The film advertises itself as “a fable from a true tragedy.” Those in the audience that are aware of the “true tragedy” know the eventual outcome of Diana’s life.

The atmosphere in the film is very tense. Jonny Greenwood, an English musician and composer from the rock band Radiohead, scored the film and uses ominous piano melodies to accentuate the paranoia felt by Diana. 

The film opens with Diana driving her Porsche convertible through the countryside trying to locate Sandringham House. She ends up at an old farm, abandoned and shuttered, which turns out to be her parent’s old home. They are long gone now and we feel Diana’s longing to exist in this more innocent time as she grabs at the barbed wire which blocks the driveway. She makes a note of the location and resolves to return later.

The film cuts to Diana’s arrival at Sandringham House as the staff wish to weigh her before the festivities to honor an old Windsor tradition started by Prince Albert.The custom demands that you gain three pounds by the end of the weekend in order to prove you’ve enjoyed yourself. Diana’s eating disorder triggers trauma inside of her and this is much more than a startling and inconvenient moment for her.

Diana’s primary antagonist is Major Gregory, who introduces himself as the Queen Mother’s equerry. He constantly hounds Diana for her absenteeism and demands she be more discreet. He is the agent of repression.

The fame that Diana has acquired among the paparazzi is dangerous, and Gregory warns her to be more safe. When Diana refuses to close her shades while changing, the establishment bites down hard on her and sews them shut.

Earlier, Diana spoke to a kindred spirit on the kitchen staff and asked for wire cutters. The audience is curious as to their purpose. When she sees the sewn shades, she cuts right through them. The wire cutters come back into play when Diana returns to her childhood home. She uses them to break through the barbed wire and revisit the setting of a simpler time.

While there, she has a startling vision of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. Anne Boleyn beseeches Diana not to hurt herself. Still, Diana wobbles at the top of the stairs, contemplating throwing herself down. 

There are bright moments here too. In the most hopeful scene in the movie, Diana goes to London to get Kentucky Fried Chicken with the kids in disguise. She ends up putting her meal order under the name Spencer, reclaiming her identity. As she stares off into the distance, her boys enjoy the meal. 

When Diana gets back into the urban real world she enjoys the sun on her cheeks. The royal country homes have abused her for far too long.

“Spencer” uses a nightmare vacation to show us Diana’s struggle in the public eye. Her three days with the extended Royal family are harrowing. This scheme is set up well and serves its purpose. You really feel like you’re there with Diana. 

Stewart was a great casting choice for this movie. She has been through a similar struggle, being an actress in the limelight for quite some time. All year long, Stewart has been the runaway favorite in Oscar buzz from around the entertainment sphere. Her good showing on the festival circuit has improved her chances of receiving an award. 

“Spencer” is primarily a movie about oppression. The bizarre nature of the relationship between the royals and outsiders is astonishing. Just like in our own timeline, royal family members are having trouble with the system and leaving. Meghan Markle’s departure from Britain is a prime example. But in 1991, it was unheard of. In many ways, Diana walked so Meghan could run. 

Diana is similarly crushed. Markle expressed feelings of anxiety much the same way Diana did. Diana’s struggle with her mental health and eating disorder caused her severe distress. It is hard to watch her go on, as she can be very cruel to herself. 

The movie itself is beautiful. The costumes and makeup are great, as Stewart looks amazing and bears a striking resemblance to Diana. The ambient noises in this film also add a level of dark foreboding. 

When we see Diana in a stressful situation, the bass sounds cue in and distort the scene, making the whole vibe feel edgy and frightening. You can really see the pain in Stewart’s character.

The Princess of Wales stresses about the future as well. She wonders how the historians will perceive her if she eventually becomes queen. This is ironic and sad to the audience as we know this possibility never comes to fruition.

In 1991, on this Christmas vacation with Diana, we are given a look into the personal struggle inside her mind. We feel the dark tones of that royal life, full of oppression and stress.

This film has some hard scenes as well. There is a depiction of self harm, which is very hard to watch. It is included in the film, I presume, to show us the reality of the mental health struggle Diana suffered with. Her fight with the illness is driven home in this very sad scene. 

Other moments in the film feel tense and unreal. At the lavish dinners held in Sandringham House, no one speaks. The queen stares Diana down, making her ill will apparent for all who see. Diana has numerous hallucinations, which stem from her vicious, anxious fears. 

Still, the relationship between Diana and her boys is so tender. Diana is a devoted mother, and a good one too. Her boys adore her and worry for her health. Diana asks them to keep an eye on her because it’s their opinion of her that matters most.

Diana’s life is a hard one. Not only is she not receiving the medical help she requires, but she must also adhere to a rigid schedule of appearances. Even for a normal person, this would be annoying, but in her current state, she is in no condition to continue this exhausting regimen. 

“Spencer” leaves us feeling sad for the terrible loss of Princess Diana. She was unique in the world she inhabited. For that very reason, she was stepped on and made to stay in line. Since the film takes place in 1991, we know Diana eventually gets free of this institution. 

However, we also know her ultimate fate. In that sense, the film is just what it says it is: a hypothetical look inside of a very real tragedy. Stewart allows aggression and anger to bubble up under the surface and make Diana’s frustration palpable for the viewer. The grand set design and the dark sonic landscape both help us understand just how hard it was for Diana to spend time with the royal family. 

“Spencer” is ultimately effective at its aims. The film gives us some new insights into one of the biggest celebrities in history. The parallels between Diana and her son Prince Harry such as Harry’s departure from royal life, are evident in this film as well. One can imagine the queen is not happy about the success of “Spencer.” 

She may even be sitting in the stuffy Sandringham House now, cursing the repeated bad press for the British royal family. After seeing this film, one can understand why. “Spencer” is a thoroughly daring biopic with rewatch value, largely owing its success to Stewart’s tour de force performance as the late Princess Diana. 

Rating: 8/10

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