From the very moment Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021) opens, it makes sure to emphasise that the film is a “fable from a true tragedy”. In essence, the film isn’t a factual retelling, albeit many will see the truth in how this fictional drama around Princess Diana portrays her internalised trauma and struggle for a semblance of normality in an otherwise abnormal world.
From the films outset, Larraín establishes the very unsettling tone that will persist for the rest of its 105 or so minutes. We open to a convoy of army trucks driving to the grounds of the Sandringham Estate where the film is set, with soldiers unloading multiple boxes labelled with ‘Barrett .50 caliber’. Amidst this convoy is a dead pheasant on the road — a symbol that plays a big role later on — narrowly not being flattened by the large vehicles passing by. The soldiers situate these boxes in a kitchen where it is revealed some moments later that they are actually filled with food, not guns, but as the film progresses they may as well have had guns in them.
This brings us to Diana (played incredibly by Kristen Stewart) as she seemingly struggles to find her way to the Estate in time for a Christmas Eve dinner and weekend with the Royal family. The land is familiar to her as she grew up in the neighbourhood, but she is lost. It’s a well crafted opening sequence that really establishes the unnerving events that will take place over the course of the Christmas weekend in the film, as Diana begins to break away from the grip of the structured life she leads.
Spencer revolves around a short window of time in the early 90s when Diana and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) were growing increasingly estranged from one another (especially as news of an affair circulated). Larraín focuses on Diana’s response to this truth and crafts a series of spellbinding scenes that leave you wondering whether you’re actually watching a drama or the year’s best thriller.
One of those scenes occurs early on in the film as Diana reluctantly joins the rest of the royal family for a Christmas Eve dinner. Larraín masterfully captures the anxiety plaguing Diana as she is essentially made to share a space with the cheating Charles while wearing a pearl necklace that he has also implicitly gifted to his mistress. As the scene progresses, this necklace continues to tighten around Diana’s neck, and Johnny Greenwood’s pulsating score accentuates that tightness, ultimately extending it beyond the screen and wrapping it around you like a straitjacket — you can feel the suffocation taking place. Eventually, Diana rips the necklace off which lands in her pea soup, and she ends up stuffing her face with the peas and pearls. By this point, Greenwood’s score has reached a crescendo and is now dying down — it is experiencing the same relief that Diana is experiencing.
There are multiple sequences like this in Spencer that border the fine line of drama and thriller as various elements like story, sound, camerawork and performance work in tandem to highlight the anxiety Diana is experiencing. Larraín took a similar approach in his melancholic drama, Jackie (2016) — the biopic on the First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman). The two films share various similarities including the focus on a glamorous public figure of a country, the aforementioned focus on the internal trauma and struggle that comes with that lifestyle, and the very sombre tone.
It is through Stewart’s performance though that we come to perceive how far from normal Diana’s situation was. Stewart plays Diana with a degree of verisimilitude (tapping into the very innocence of her gestures and expressions) and relatability that can be best quantified through Stewart’s own star persona and her very gentle, reserved demeanour in the public eye. Stewart wholly embodies Diana and gives her an added layer of complexity that may have escaped the public eye.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon (best known for shooting one of 2019’s best films, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) does an incredible job at capturing both the loneliness Diana experienced and the suffocating lifestyle of being a royal. She uses a Super 16mm camera for the most part and focuses on sprawling wide shots that frame Diana alone in the vastness of a world that overwhelms her; high angle shots that place an emphasis on the overbearing and watchful eye of those around her; and close-ups and extreme close-ups during interior sequences to heighten how confined and constricted she is in the artificial world she’s now a part of.
The film isn’t perfect though as Steven Knight’s screenplay is sometimes too on-the-nose and just not subtle enough which would make sense if this was a beat-for-beat retelling, but because there is a level of fictionalisation going on here, there could have been less obviousness in some of the dialogue spoken. The supporting cast is also quite unused but that actually makes sense in the wider scheme of things given this is focusing on Diana and is emphasising that distance between her and others which plays into the muted ambience Larraín is going for.
There’s a particular moment towards the films end where Diana ponders over how she will be remembered in the distant future. She notes that Elizabeth the first has been reduced to “The Virgin Queen” while George the third would be known as “The Mad King”. While the tragic circumstances of Diana’s life and death are known, if Larraín’s Spencer is anything to go by, Diana drives into the sunset on her own terms.
Spencer is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.