Is it possible to give a great performance in a junky, clunky film? On the evidence of Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, yes, because Kristen Stewart is simply terrific as the late Lady Diana Spencer, and yet the film is anything but. Diana’s friends have noted that she’d be horrified by the way Steven Knight’s script depicts her, and they’re not the only ones who’ll have doubts; this is a rather intrusive and speculative film about the People’s Princess. Stewart nails Diana’s mannerisms, but making fantasy films about well-loved public figures isn’t easy, and Spencer doesn’t have the narrative smoke and mirrors required to charm or persuade.
After getting lost on her way from an event at a Kensington book-shop, Diana rocks up late to Sandringham for a royal family Christmas Eve gathering; she balks at the Queen’s tradition of having each guest weigh themselves on a giant set of scales before the festivities begin. Diana is pictured happy to be re-united with children William and Harry, but less appreciative of the frosty welcome she gets from estranged husband Charles (Jack Farthing). Keen to explore her desolate childhood home nearby, Diana zones in and out of reality, hallucinating that the pearls she wears are getting crunched in her soup, or conversing with the ghost of Anne Boleyn as she stalks the corridors. Diana yearns to break out of royal protocols, and take her kids out for a fast food meal, but the stifling environment, and her own eating disorder, stand in the way of her contentment…
The director’s Jackie bio with Natalie Portman had more success in suggesting the private mania that goes on behind public life, but Spencer runs into problems from the get-go, leaving aside the out-of-focus photography and screeching free-form jazz soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. By focusing exclusively on Diana’s POV, all other characters are caricatured; the Queen likes corgis, tradition and having her face on bank-notes, and that’s about as much insight as we get. In order to set Diana in conflict with her family, like a sulky teenager, we see her disparage her own choice of public work (getting rid of landmines), encourage a lesbian crush from her dresser, and demand privacy from her staff so she can ‘masturbate’; whether this is true or not matters less than that it depicts a smart media-savvy figure as a helpless, hopeless, attention-seeking naif. The Diana depicted here even courts the attentions of a fearsome mob of press photographers, leaving curtains open so that their telephoto-lenses can capture her undressing. Anyone who remembers how the media literally drove Diana to her death will find such details deeply unpersuasive; in life, she seemed to be continually in conflict with men telling her what she could and couldn’t think and do, and that trend continues beyond the grave with this tawdry film.
Like being a child actor, being a royal is not something a young person can choose; if you marry into a royal family, you already know what you’re getting, a trade-off that offers continual intrusiveness vs the fame and power that come with the company. If all Diana craved was suburban normalcy, and that’s the argument here, she certainly went about it in a strange way, and the film never closes that gap between fact and fiction; much as it’s nice to hear Mike and The Mechanics’ upbeat anthem All I Need is a Miracle on the soundtrack, the ‘I’ve-just-remembered-my-real-name-and-who I -am’ ending featured here worked far better in Robocop. Stewart is a stick-on for awards recognition for a remarkable turn, but it’s the only thing that works here; the optics are terrible on Larrain and Knight mansplaining to us who they think Diana really was.
Thanks to STX Films for advance access, Spencer is out in the UK Friday November 5th 2021