By Pen Fang
Most people are aware of the story of Princess Diana, one of the most influential figures of the late 20th century, a woman whose friendly disposition and work in charity led to her becoming an international icon, beloved by many. The film Spencer follows her story over the course of a three-day Christmas holiday, through which she must stay with the British Royal family. It depicts her account of the decision to end her marriage with Prince Charles.
Spencer opens with the words: “A fable from a true tragedy.” This establishes the fictionalized aspect: the film is less biopic and more psychological drama, and leans into historical fiction with its depiction of the events. The opening also serves to remind the audience of Princess Diana’s ultimate fate, her untimely death in a car crash trying to escape the paparazzi.
Kristen Stewart stars as Princess Diana. Her performance is absolutely stunning; she becomes and embodies the character, and she truly deserves every award that she gets. Pablo Larraín sits on the director’s chair, who also directed Jackie, another exploration of grief and emotion through a historical figure.
Spencer feels like a character study, exploring the emotions and trauma of a woman on the edge. The storytelling of the film itself feels haunted. The score and cinematography, done by Jonny Greenwood and Claire Mathon respectively, amplify and add another layer to the film. Scenes are both gorgeous and harrowing, and some shots feel more horror-esque than anything else. Eerie, paranoid melodies and crescendos help add the feeling of tension to the film.
In fact, there is a lingering sense of anxiety throughout the film: we are aware that Princess Diana is—or is going to be—watched, whether by the paparazzi or the British Royal Family or someone else. We are aware that she is expected to do and behave certain ways. We are introduced immediately to the harsh reality of the price of fame, as well as her being stuck in a system that has no value or care for her. Furthermore, she struggles with mental health; the film follows Princess Diana through a downward spiral, through breakdown after breakdown. The difference (or lack of) between reality and the imagination also contributes to the exploration of mental trauma.
The theme of escaping the past is also introduced and is especially prominent in a comparison between Anne Boleyn and Princess Diana. Anne Boleyn was the second wife of Henry VIII, and was executed for treason. Both women suffered tragic fates at the hands of the monarchy.
How do you know what’s real? How do you free yourself from a system that proves time and time again it has no care for you? How do you escape your past and present to create a future?
Spencer is a more theatrical take on Princess Diana, yet it manages to humanize her, offering a more emotionally raw and honest take on her story.