Movie Review: How ‘Spencer’ Humanises Diana
Like most girls, I grew up watching movies about women whose problems in life are all solved the moment they become Princess. It became an aspiration for so many young girls. ‘Spencer’ is a movie that tears apart that illusion of a fairytale. The biopic about Diana shows that the life of opulence and luxury she lived is only one side of the coin, but the price for this lifestyle weighed heavy on her. Starring Kristen Stewart, the film is directed by Pablo Larraín, who is also known for his critically acclaimed film ‘Jackie.’
As opposed to other films on the subject, ‘Spencer’ does not tell the story of the beginning of Diana’s marriage to Charles, nor the highly controversial end of her life. Instead, it is set in Christmas of 1991; at a time when Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage had already faltered, and his affair with Camilla was an open secret. The movie focuses largely on the Princess’ mental health, depicting a person who is struggling to keep herself together as the gaze of the world lingers on her, even at her lowest. Held down by not only her past, but by the past of the Royal Family, Diana sees herself in the historical figures that loom over her life.
The film draws a parallel, in particular, between Anne Boleyn and Diana. Anne Boleyn, a former Queen of England, was accused of having an affair and beheaded, simply so that her husband could marry a different woman. In Anne, Diana saw the fate that awaited her. The two women share an unspoken but palpable bond. Each time that Amy Manson is on screen, depicting the former queen, she can wordlessly portray the immense hurt and betrayal she had experienced. Her bloodshot eyes silently scream at the audience, and at Diana herself to be wary of her fate. These are the scenes that come across the most as a thriller, carried largely by Manson’s haunting delivery.
While Stewart could have portrayed a more realistic Diana by using a more authentic British accent, her delivery more than makes up for it. Her performance in the pearl necklace scene is as uncomfortable for us to see as it is for her to sit across a table from her husband and his mistress. When Stewart tears a hole in her arm with a pair of wire-cutters, it is difficult not to flinch. The actress can truly showcase her talent in scenes such as the breakdown in her childhood home; she portrays the Princess in a way that any commoner can relate to. The everyday mannerisms and style mimic the Princess in such a way that it brings the character to life.
The Princess battled with bulimia and the audience understand the source of the disorder while sitting with her meal after meal. The film does an excellent job of showing us how the castle itself contributed to this. With each meal being an event, and never-ending menus, what starts as a very appealing aspect of Royal life becomes more and more nauseating to watch.
With that being said, the film’s unique angle and its approach to Diana’s sense of being watched is commendable. It shows that the prying eyes are as much inside the castle as outside of it. Word travels easily between the palace staff, leaving our lead character unable to confide in almost anyone. Subtle decisions made by Larraín bring this aspect to the forefront; the first scene itself foreshadows the constantly watching eyes and listening ears, as a sign in the kitchen tells the staff to be quiet. ‘They can hear you’ it warns us, building anticipation for what comes ahead. The gradual closing in walls are shown in the curtains that are sealed shut, so the audience can share in Diana’s feeling of feeling trapped and suffocated.
The costumes designed by Jacqueline Durran managed to imitate Diana’s style remarkably. The red dress worn on Christmas morning by Stewart is identical to Diana’s ’93 dress, one that she wore immediately after her separation from Charles; even her casual outfits reflect the style of the early 90s. More so, Durran showcases her skill in the dress worn by Manson in the role of Anne Boleyn, as she creates an elaborate replica of what Anne wears in her most famous portrait.
The set designs exhibit a Royal Estate; very different to what we are used to. Instead of the usual grandeur of the palace, the brightly lit halls and the extravagant rooms, we are shown something much darker. The design is almost that of a haunted castle, with dark, candlelit rooms, sealed curtains, a vast emptiness, and a sense of always being watched. The massive portraits of former monarchs that hang on the walls not only add to the feeling of eeriness but remind us of the world that is locked in tradition.
The unconventional, genre-bending music adds to this haunting feeling. Instead of the typical horn-blaring music associated with movies depicting the Royal life, Jonny Greenwood has composed a more sombre, orchestral track for the film that makes you feel less like you are watching a tale about a Princess, and more like you are watching the haunting story of a woman cast aside. With Pablo Larraín’s excellent direction and a skilled team that created this haunting experience, Kristen Stewart brilliantly portrays Princess Diana as we have never seen her before. We would highly recommend this movie for Diana and the Royal Family fans. Rotten Tomatoes has given it an 83% score, and it is a good watch if you feel like watching a winter feels movie with the bonus of the most famous Princess of the modern era.
Watch the trailer here.