With so much attention paid to the late Diana Spencer in recent times, with the most current season of The Crown and the Broadway musical among the high profile endeavors, it may seem a film entry would not have anything new to say on the subject. Luckily, with Pablo Larraín (Jackie) directing Steven Knight’s (Locke, Dirty Pretty Things) screenplay for Spencer, this strange, artsy meditation on loneliness, rage, and self-realization cuts through the clutter with something fresh, immersive, and emotionally haunting. Add a career-defining, wounded, sometimes unsympathetic, not always relatable yet fiercely cutting performance by Kristen Stewart, and you have one of the can’t-miss movies of 2021.
Set in the early 1990s, well enough into Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles to recognize its bitter last gasps, the film begins with a military procession converging on the Royal Family’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk on the day before Christmas. Carrying what appear to be coffin-like crates holding weaponry, they instead contain all manner of food items needed for the three-day gathering. Almost immediately, the chatter amongst them turns to the terrible faux pas that Diana has not yet arrived, despite the Queen already being there. We then cut to the Princess driving alone in her small convertible, lost and stopping at a cafe for directions, stunning the patrons.
From here, we stick almost exclusively with Diana, only rarely catching a glimpse of the Royals, with the Queen (Stella Gonet) only given one line of dialogue in the entire film. Her judgmental side-eyes at her daughter-in-law speak volumes instead. Stewart plays Diana as a bored, impatient, sulking, buzzkill. She’s late to every planned event, rarely cracks a smile, and refuses to go gently along with the restrictive nature of her life. One could easily conclude that, despite her enormous privilege, she has turned into a supreme brat. Yet Stewart finds Diana’s empathetic heart, the trapped animal whose sole mission is to protect her two sons from this stifling existence, yet still unafraid to give us a warts-and-all portrayal.
Under constant watch, she bristles at Timothy Spall’s scowling, smothering Major Gregory, who tries to keep her in line. Her only respite appears in the form of her dresser, Maggie (a wonderful Sally Hawkins), who seems to understand Diana’s torment and knows just what to say to get her dressed and pushed from room to room. Diana also savors time with her sons, showing maternal strength and a sense of humor while playing a game with them in one of the film’s best scenes. Spencer also has one laugh out loud moment when Diana wants to shoo a staff member away by using a well-placed bit of sexually explicit talk. These grace notes go a long way toward distancing Diana from the images of her petulance, bouts of bulimia, isolation, and her tragic death. The striking poster for the film, that of a lonely Princess, dressed to the nines, yet hiding her face from the camera, takes on something much more dire and eye-opening when observed within the context of the scene. So much of the film plays with our own interpretations of this woman vis-a-vis her private, internal thoughts.
With so much of the film happening inside Diana’s head, we have a sometimes unreliable narrator who exists in an almost constant state of paranoia and despair. You won’t soon forget what she does at a dinner scene with her pearl necklace, a gift from her husband, who also gave the same one to Camilla. It may not have really happened, but you can certainly understand her state of mind. Same goes for the fashion magazine montage of her dancing around the castle in various gowns perfectly designed by Jacqueline Durran. It may seem like a perfume commercial, but it also captures Diana’s need to escape. Knight has a gift for memorable dialogue, especially when underlying Diana’s role as nothing but mere currency and how the past, present, and future no longer exist. Add Jonny Greenwood’s tense score and you have a type of psychological horror film along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, another movie about a woman trapped.
Stewart offers a mesmerizing push-pull quality to Diana as someone not always likable but consistently vulnerable and real. She speaks in a hushed, tight, clipped manner befitting of someone at the end of her rope, yet gives us the shy, head tilt when facing the press. At certain angles, the resemblance is stunning. The lengths the family will go to in order to control her include clamping together curtains to shut Diana away from prying cameras and regimenting her wardrobe for every moment. Any reasonable person would want to blast some music and frolic around; anything to avoid the stifling boredom of a wordless dinner with the Windsors with their withering glances.
Despite the white privilege of it all, Spencer finds beautiful pockets of humanity. Notable late scenes with Hawkins and Spall stand out as the filmmakers looking for decency wherever they could find it. The film has a queer bent to it as well, with Stewart herself identifying as such and one character in particular giving us a surprising and tender moment of a same-sex attraction which quickly morphs into a deepening of a relationship.
In its final act, Diana reaches a crossroads. In three short days, she has to make a decision which will impact her life and that of her sons. A stunning scene puts Diana in the center of a conflict as she strikingly stands her ground. Stewart’s Diana has spent the entire story earning this moment, holding so much in, letting her mind play tricks on her, struggling to find value in her existence. This fight for her children ultimately gives this moody, impressionistic story an unexpected heroic uplift. Add an 80s classic on the soundtrack, a meal gorgeously unfit for a Princess, and a lovingly composed shot of Diana, her body language suggesting a heretofore unseen sense of calm as she leans against a railing looking out at an iconic London landmark, and you have a triumphant Diana moment almost guaranteed to replace in your mind the last seconds of her terrible fate. Stewart has the last line of dialogue in the film as she talks to a stranger on the other end of a speaker. She utters one defiant word, something seemingly so understated yet loaded with the power to rejoice in this strong, independent woman. Stewart should start rehearsing her Oscar speech.
Spencer opens exclusively in theaters November 5th.
by Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic