Approximately a decade into their marriage, the union of Diana and Charles is as decayed as the floorboards in her abandoned childhood home and there seems to be nowhere to go but down. That early 90s mindset is where we find Kristen Stewart as the People’s Princess in Spencer from Pablo Larrain. Set at Christmas, it’s an unexpectedly claustrophobic mood piece punctuated by jazz beats and occasional moments of joy (mostly courtesy of young William and Harry). They’re weighed down by Diana’s loveless connection to her husband and in-laws.
Focused on someone who strained to follow royal patterns, it seems appropriate that Spencer refuses to follow ones in the biopic genre. That makes it unique and sometimes haunting – a bit like the title character. In 1991, Diana is well aware of the Prince’s other relationship. So are the paparazzi and they force curtains to be sewn shut as the Royals holiday at their Norfolk estate. Sewing the Princess’s garments are Maggie (Sally Hawkins), one of the few subjects that Diana can talk to. The same cannot be said for Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), who runs the home with the same military precision as the cooks preparing their meals.
In her room that she appears not to share with Charles, the reading list is suggestive. A novel about Anne Boleyn (a 16th century Queen executed by her King) leads to Diana having strange visions of the long beheaded branch of the complicated family tree.
Spencer is not concerned with historical accuracy as much as how history affected the former Miss Spencer’s psyche. She longs to break free as evidenced by an excursion to her former residence. The dialogue between her and Charles (Jack Farthing) or the Queen (Stella Gonet) is curt and strained. There are no pearls of wisdom found in their interactions.
With a stirring score from Jonny Greenwood and masterful cinematography by Claire Mathon, this is a gorgeously rendered production. Stewart has shown her considerable talents post Twilight before – particularly in Personal Shopper. While she may not closely resemble Diana, her mannerisms do and her vulnerability is often something to marvel at. Those looking for a traditional experience may not gel with Spencer. I found myself not being able to look away.
***1/2 (out of four)