“Mommy. What’s happened to make you so sad?” In a particular dinner scene within Spencer, the British royal family gathers around elegant cutlery decor and upscale food choices. Everything is precisely in order, except for Diana (Kristen Stewart). Her mere presence and aura stick out like a sore thumb and cut through the long-perceived pageantry. She’s not able to enjoy her soup as she feels the searing scorn of judgy eyes upon her. The pearl necklace that she wears becomes uncomfortable. Director Pablo Larraín’ elevates the scene to take upon a Hitchcock-like tone. Feeling the anxiety upon her, she breaks the pearl necklace and consumes pieces of it within her soup. The audience will realize this is a fever dream—a metaphor of the claustrophobic expectations enclosing themselves around Diana like a sarcophagus.
Spencer takes place for three days during the Christmas holiday. The vast, isolated English country estate that the royal family stays at might as well act as a luxurious prison for Diana. She is cautioned against opening the blinds, just in case the press is lurking around. Her outfits are picked out for her to fit a certain ascetic and form. There are only a couple of people present Diana can confine in. Her royal dresser named Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who serves as her shoulder to cry on, and the head chef Darren (Sean Harris), provides her words of wisdom at points. All the other relationships (if you can call them that) are frosty and distanced. This screenshot was when Diana was going through marriage troubles with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and Larraín’ depicts the extent of their union as a necessary means to keep the royal appearance going.
A passionate argument happens between them in one of the few scenes they have with each other. Charles tells Diana that there needs to be two of her; the ‘real her ‘and the one that the public sees. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed throughout the film and something that Diana struggles with immensely. Thus, she has to watch as the family she’s married into proceeds with a zombie-like devotion to tradition. Larraín and cinematographer Claire Mathon work together to build an emotionally charged atmosphere through wide shots and close-ups that secure Stewart’s facial expressions. Diana tears up during a massive photo op as the paparazzi call to her en masse – almost wincing in pain. Equal time shows Diana against these vast hallways and rooms that seem to swallow her up and tight frames that show her displeasure.
All of Spencer‘s ingredients hinges on the fantastic performance of Kristen Stewart. She ultimately buys into Diana’s essence during that period, so much that she seems like a personal conduit. Her mannerisms and how she delivers dialogue with both restraint and defiance as captivating. At points, Spencer takes on a tone of a ghastly, Victorian horror film. There are constant warnings that everything can be heard. Security detail Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) monitors her every move with a disciplined cowl. Diana is seen longing for the days of her former life, visiting a lonely childhood home. The only modes of happiness are her young boys, Prince William and Harry (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry). When all three of them are given time together, those are the scenes where Diana’s true character radiates – the love she has for them and an urge for them to have some normalcy. As this is the well that fills Diana’s cup of life, the rigid structure of the royal family constantly leaves her dry.
Even at its conclusion, there’s an immense sense of sadness knowing what the result turned out to be. The score composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood serves as an uncanny reminder of her fate to come – chasing and gnawing at her heels. Diana is often found clutching a novel about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. Her ghost comes to her (surely a hallucination), but also a literal warning of what is coming if she increasingly loses herself to the pits of depression. Much like 2016’s Jackie, Larraín uses artistic, cinematic tools to dive into how tragedy affects famous women. One is the Kennedy family (who are considered American prestige), and the other has a long history of British nobility. Both stories hold in the lessons of conformity, the toll of fame, patriarchal expectations, and how tradition stripes you of individualism.
Photo Credit: Neon