“In this house, there is no future. The past and the present are the same thing.”
Back in 2017, the documentary Diana: In Her Own Words presented secretly recorded interviews Diana gave in the early 90s for what would eventually serve as the basis for Andrew Morton’s explosive book about the Princess. Although she’d given “revealing” interviews before, this was the first time the world was able to hear her speak so candidly about her life and the real stories behind the moments the world saw and didn’t see. Listening to one of the most famous women in the world speak, the documentary showed a somewhat broken figure who was a far cry from the statuesque and elegant woman she presented. But there was also a strength in the Princess’s voice which showed she was going to fight for herself at whatever the cost and, as the tapes themselves proved, would not be content to remain silent. Four years later, director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight have delivered Spencer, a fictional drama which offers an imagined look at a Diana struggling to hold onto herself while trying hopelessly to live up to her duties as a Princess. Whether or not the makers of Spencer saw the documentary, I cannot say, but their Diana is perhaps the closest to that image-shattering voice longing to break free.
Taking place during a Christmas weekend in 1991, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) has belatedly arrived to spend the holiday with her children William and Harry (Jack Neilen and Freddie Spry), her estranged husband Charles (Jack Farthing) and the rest of the royal family. However, unhappiness at the state of her marriage and pressure to adhere to a life she wasn’t meant for continuously plague Diana, testing her resolve as she struggles to get through the weekend.
The storytelling of Spencer is certainly one which will provoke plenty of discussion. Even though the film is in that vein of current biopics that have chosen to focus on a specific period in a person’s life rather than the cradle to grave method, Larrain still doesn’t follow the usual trajectory. Announced as a “fable” from the start, there’s a definite storybook quality to the proceedings which is enhanced by the cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s score, both of which are the epitome of ethereal. Not all of the touches work though. The ghost of Anne Boleyn appears every now and again to provide a useless touch of symbolism, while the film’s left turn ending is a rather puzzling way to finish off the proceedings. But neither matter in the face of what Spencer otherwise offers in terms of visual emotion. A sequence at dinner in which Diana fantasizes eating her pearl necklace and a later scene of her escaping the grounds in her ballgown to her childhood home both give us a sense of a Diana living a nightmare wrapped in a dream. The film isn’t capturing Diana’s madness or even suggesting that there was madness to capture. Instead, it’s the madness of that world, the immensely suffocating nature of the place, the people and the life which are collectively consuming her that comprise Spencer’s landscape. Although they’re present, we never really hear from the royal family themselves, most of whom (with the exception of Charles) exist almost like phantoms. But the film isn’t about them. It’s about Diana as many believed her life to be at this place in time.
While there is a wildly popular portrayal of Diana already out there and another one on the way, the one conjured up by Spencer is one that offers an intimacy that’s about as close as we’ll ever get to the woman herself. We see a person who is being held captive by both her fragility and an instinct to wear her heart on her sleeve. This is a Diana driven by compulsion who finds herself suffocating by the woman she’s allowed herself to become. A good many scenes in Spencer show Diana with a gaze that can only be described as serene panic. Her lovely face has a look as if she’s hyperventilating, gasping for air while remaining the glowing, radiant creature the world fell in love with. Spencer doesn’t hold back in showing many of the elements which drove Diana to her current state, including her bulimia. But those are juxtaposed with more tender human moments, such as a late night Christmas Eve game she plays with Harry and William, showing the loveliness that seemed so much a part of her. Spencer knows it has very limited to room to play around with anything factual beyond what is already known about Diana, but the film seems transfixed by the image she sent out into the world, which Larrain captures perfectly, particularly in a montage where she is seen dancing in various gowns. It’s here we literally see a life flashing before our eyes, signifying the different stages which led Diana to become Princess Diana.
Stewart has always been so adept at playing characters who are haunted in one way or another. From The Runaways to the Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, the actress has never failed to bring to life to characters who can exist in the reality of the day, but who don’t necessarily know their place within it. It’s this quality which carries her performance throughout Spencer. Her interpretation of Diana is one which is constantly doing battle with her life and herself. There’s something in the actress’s physicality, a very specific type of vulnerability mixed with quiet defiance which is at the backbone of every move she makes. Great support comes from Timothy Spall as the appointed head of the household, Farthing as an effective Prince Charles and a warm Sally Hawkins as Diana’s personal dresser. But this is a film which wouldn’t have a prayer of working without the right actress at the forefront, which Stewart most definitely is.
When Diana died in 1997, I was 15 years old and it was at first nothing more than a news headline to me. I can recall my mother being saddened by the news as were some kids on the school bus. Shortly after, George Clooney gave a press conference denouncing the reckless actions of the paparazzi, the Spice Girls wore black armbands during their performance at the VMAs and suddenly the world (or what seemed like the world) was awash with grief. A legend had been born, a myth that the countless number of people who loved Diana during her lifetime continue to be fascinated by. There is of course, the opposite side. A fellow critic friend of mine who did not care for Spencer (or anything to do with the royal family, for that matter) commented that in his eyes Larrain’s Diana came across as a spoiled, petulant child who we never really got to know. In a way, that comment is telling. Diana was and is forever destined to remain a mystery; a woman who is to be endlessly mythologized but never truly figured out. Perhaps that’s the reason she’s remained so present in the culture over two decades after her death. There’s a desire for some, whatever amount of intrigue, adoration and wonder they may have towards her, to know who the real Diana was. It’s simply never going to happen.