During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana decides to leave her marriage to Prince Charles.
‘Spencer’ is the emperor’s new clothes movie of the year, a vapid, indulgent fabrication that has somehow managed to convince many people that this is somehow an important piece of work. It is the latest attempt to tackle the story of Diane, Princess of Wales (the less said about ‘Diana’ the movie the better) and it comes from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who would appear to be a good fit for the material having helmed ‘Jackie’, a terrific unconventional movie about Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination. In ‘Spencer’, we follow Diana over the course of a Christmas weekend spent at the Royal Family’s retreat in Sandringham, where she wrestles with her feelings about her marriage to Charles.
The first thing to say about ‘Spencer’ is it’s a hatchet job on both Diana and the Royal Family. She comes across as selfish and spoilt, and they are depicted as entirely distant and uncaring – whilst elements of both are likely not entirely untrue, it’s stretched to the very limits of credibility. Larraín has made no secret that this is a fable and isn’t meant to be taken literally, which is just as well as there’s very little basis in truth here – other than the very publicly known fact that Charles & Diana’s marriage was never likely to work. He entirely invents a tormented childhood and an abandoned estate for her, when we know she came from a wealthy background and by all accounts the property that was her family’s still exists on the Sandringham estate (and is not in disrepair). Look, I’ll be the first person to defend artistic license in movies, but there are limits and when it strays so far from the truth it just becomes maddening. If Larraín wanted to make a movie such as this and fictionalise Diana’s story so heavily, he should have had the courage to make it about fictional characters – granted, I’m not convinced I’d have enjoyed it much more in that case as the problems go far deeper than the many script embellishments.
In terms of how this is pulled together, it is very late period Terrence Malick (ie bad Malick). Much of the film is shot like a perfume advert, with a variety of shots of Kristen Stewart as Diana standing around, looking miserable, with different lighting and stunning backdrops of the estate and the countryside to enhance the moments. It looks great but can’t help but come across as smug and self-satisfied. Kristen Stewart’s performance has been lauded and rightly so, she does really capture the essence of Diana, and she’s the glue that just about holds ‘Spencer’ together. I did find her a little too mannered at times but that is a very minor critique, and as you will be reading, I have bigger fish to fry with this one! It is particularly disappointing that is such a distant piece of work as Larraín did such an excellent job with ‘Jackie’, which was one of my favourite films of that year. ‘Jackie’ used similar techniques to ‘Spencer‘ to put you in the First Lady’s headspace and I felt more drawn in to Natalie Portman and that film’s portrayal of the grieving process and it rang far truer than ‘Spencer’ ever does.
If ‘Diana’ (the 2013 movie from Oliver Hirschbiegel starring Naomi Watts as Diana) was a tabloid trash take on its subject, then ‘Spencer’ is arthouse trash. It may be more artfully made and better acted, but it hits the same pitfalls that made that film a failure (bafflingly, this one is a critical success so far – the emperors new clothes indeed). That brings me on to my final point, which is that until writers and filmmakers stop treating Diana like a deity and a helpless victim, a true depiction of her interesting life and story will not be possible. Diana, like most people, was complicated, and it does no service to truth, to her and to those involved in her life to turn her story into a good vs evil fable.
Directed By: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Richard Sammel and Stella Gonet