Billed as a fable, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer could also be titled, “A Portrait of a Princess on the Edge”. The movie uses the three-day Christmas holiday period in 1991 as the jumping off point for all of the events shown on screen. While it is true that Diana (Kristen Stewart) attended the family gathering in the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, everything shown in Spencer should be taken as cut out of whole cloth. Ultimately, your acceptance or rejection of the movie hinges on how much you are willing to go along with this fabricated tale as it unfolds.
Spencer’s main conceit is to contrast Diana’s sensitive nature and free spirit with the staid and highly structured traditions that compromise life as a member of the royal family. Every obligation Diana submits herself to only manages to trigger her anxiety and depression, which in turn trigger her bulimia. Her family, aware of Diana’s struggles, declines to alleviate her situation, instead opting to circle the wagons and maintain their distance from her. In real life, Diana described her life at that point as real torture. Spencer provides an impressionistic representation of what enduring that torture must have felt like for Diana. While she struggles to keep her emotions in check, she’s required to attend meals throughout the day at specific times.
Spencer posits that it was during this time that Diana ultimately decided to separate from her husband, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). Before Diana comes to that personal realization, the movie depicts her as in the midst of a mental crisis. When not inducing herself to vomit, Diana has visions of hurting herself and communes with the ghost of Anne Boley. Her continuing desire to revisit her childhood home becomes her therapeutic goal towards self-healing. As any armchair psychologist will tell you, in order to make a clean break from the present and chart a better future for yourself, you must remember who you were before your life went pear-shaped.
People who are loyalists to the Netflix series The Crown may find Spencer a bit much to take. Then again, those who dislike The Crown’s glossy, soap opera stylings may prefer Spencer’s free-wheeling approach. Unlike Emma Corrin’s subtle and nuanced portrayal of Diana, Stewart plays her a dangerously frayed live wire, imminently likely to start a fire. On a technical level, Stewart’s performance is amazing, fully inhibiting Diana’s vocal and physical mannerisms. Since Larraín is not known for restraint, I’m guessing Stewart took his encouragement to let loose and chewed the scenery at will. Unfortunately, his DIRECTION and her ACTING overpower the simple message of self-actualization they are trying to convey.
I admired a lot of the craft that went into Spencer. The costumes and cinematography are exceptional, and Larraín is a gifted director. (The opening sequence, where military men deliver the food for the occasion in large metal cases, would have made Stanley Kubrick proud.) For long stretches, Spencer is like Larraín’s Jackie, a whirling dervish of sights, sounds and emotions. Watching the movie is definitely an interesting experience. I was captivated by the movie’s audacity, but not on an emotional level. I honestly had to resist the urge to shout WTF at the screen several times. Spencer was not my cup of tea, but I’m glad I saw it regardless. Not recommended.