90 / 100
Watchable Minutes: 117/117. Each moment in Spencer is poised and purposeful, without a single wasted scene.
Movie or Film: Spencer is a film about the all too short life of Diana Spencer, AKA Princess Diana. The film explores the pressures of society and family to be the most perfect version of yourself at all times, regardless of what it means for your own personal dreams and desires.
- Run time : 1 hour 75 minutes
- Studio : Neon
- Director : Pablo Larraín
- Where to Watch : In Theaters / Amazon Prime ($)
During the three days leading up to Christmas, Princess Diana arrives at the royal estate in Norfolk dreading the interactions she’ll be forced to have with the royal family. Lying just over the hill, the ghost of her past life lurks in the form of her childhood home. She puts on the face she’s expected to use for the sake of her children so they don’t have to see how painful their mother’s day to day existence has become.
There’s a lot to love about Spencer and I think a little bit of my personal context might help make this review a little more understandable. I do not care about the royal family as a collective (as an American I find it strange if you do), but I do have some sympathy for the (less publicly rotten ones) as individuals. They’re the product of a bygone era that relies too much on the fact that they’ve “always been there” to justify their continued place in the world. Furthermore, I find shows like The Crown to be obnoxious and insufferable. I tried to watch season one and just couldn’t bring myself to finish it. Nothing about it was entertaining to me, it just felt ridiculous – almost a little like propaganda. However, Spencer is not like that at all. Pablo Larraín guides Kristen Stewart through this mostly fictional and traumatic time in Princess Diana’s life.
Arriving at the royal home in Norfolk hours after everyone else in the royal family, Princess Diana begins to dread the next three days. She knows that the pressure will be extreme, but she doesn’t want to upset her children. She simply wants to provide them with a happy Christmas and to escape without too much damage to her mental health. However, that is no small task. Her husband, Prince Charles, is having an affair and expects her to put up with it because of “royal duty” to not cause a scene. However, Diana does not believe that simply because no other royal consort has previously voiced their dissatisfaction and anguish to their partner that it should prevent her from doing so, royal etiquette be damned. Each layer of protocol and tradition that is layered on top of Diana begins to suffocate her. From the smallest, most inconsequential rules like leaving her curtains open during the day or walking the grounds unescorted, Diana chooses to be an individual, much to the chagrin of the royal family. The weight of the expectations on her shoulders begins to take a toll as Diana struggles with bouts of bulimia and hallucinations but she does her best to hide her struggles from her children so that they can still enjoy the holiday.
There isn’t a lot of extra knowledge required to really enjoy Spencer. The film is entirely self-contained and all the audience really needs to know is that Princess Diana suffers from mental health issues and eating disorders because of the undue stress and pressure put on her by being associated with the royal family. What isn’t 100% clear is that this entire event is mostly fictional because while a holiday trip to Norfolk did occur and while nobody knows exactly what went on during her stay at the royal home, this most certainly didn’t happen. There is a note at the beginning of the film stating that this is a fable, but if the audience happens to miss that, it would be easy to view this movie as historically accurate. That aside, each action that the characters take is one that would logically be taken by an illogical person. Diana frequently breaks rules and protocols and the royal family does their best to stifle any sense of her individualism in order to contain her. This sort of suffocating law and order in the royal family is shown off in spades and is mercilessly executed to preserve the image of the royal family. Overlapping the grand set design is a haunting score and impressive, personal camerawork that brings the audience into the royal mansion and conveys the crushing feeling of history weighing down upon Diana.
Kristen Stewart (USA! USA! USA!) is almost unrecognizable in this role as Diana Spencer. She disappears into the character and is both a caring mother and an incredibly damaged shell of a person at the same time. Her children are played in a limited capacity Freddie Spry (Harry) and Jack Nielen (William). Neither of them has a large impact on the story but they do a marvelous job of acting concerned for Stewart’s Diana. Usually, a child actor can make or break the immersion in the story but these two excelled at just being kids who love their mom. The inclusion of Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins as Diana’s only two confidants was equally well cast. Sally Hawkins in particular helped keep Stewart’s time on screen grounded and prevented her character from just wallowing in sadness or getting too angry and flying off the handle. The royal family side of the equation was less noticeable but no less effective than the rest of the cast. Stella Gonet portrayed a regal, calculating, and judgemental Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Sammel blended into the background as Prince Phillip, and Jack Farthing was insufferable as Prince Charles.
Spencer is a dramatic and painful watch because of how tortured Princess Diana’s life most likely felt during this time. While she did grow up as a member of the aristocracy (which is odd because she was known as the “People’s Princess”), the story garnered all my sympathies and has been on my mind for days. This film could have been about any family with high expectations placed upon a clueless new entrant to that particular family. The fact that this was about one of the most extravagant and historic families in the world and it still managed to pull on my crusty heartstrings as much as it did speaks volumes to Pablo Larraín’s direction and Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana.
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