‘Spencer’ Reveals the Horrors of Royal Life (Movie Review)

Spencer stars Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana Frances Spencer. Yes, THAT Diana. Fans of Netflix’s award-winning series, The Crown, will no doubt remember Lady Di having a blast at Buckingham Palace, jamming with her Walkman on roller skates. Pablo Larrain’s indirect follow-up to Jackie, another film about an extremely privileged white woman from another era, is about as far from the good times of that roller skating scene as one can get. More a gothic descent into madness than the fairy tale of the royal family, think Black Sawn, and you’re in the right ballpark. No amount of KFC buckets can hide Diana’s psychological torment on a three-day Christmas getaway at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, in 1991. As a horror fan, a lot of this is right in my wheelhouse. I wonder, though, how such a claustrophobic tale saddled with intentionally unflattering photography will play for anyone expecting a tasteful costume drama.

I had never done this before, but I quickly found the projectionist when the lights went up at my screening for Spencer. Before I could summarize my thoughts, I had to know if the movie was intentionally given a washed-out look. The costumes by Jacqueline Durran (Little Women) are no doubt exquisite. Notably absent are the deep blacks which any cinephile has come to expect. HDR has changed the game, bringing many older films back to life (The HDR on The Shining’s 4K release is a terrific example). I can’t wait to see the new 4K print of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane later this month. And yet, here I was at the screening room where I’d previously drank in the stunning colors of Titane, wondering what was different. Why was this potential Oscar nominee so darn flat and dull? According to the projectionist, this was totally intentional. I’ll be curious to see when this arrives on home video if HDR is implemented. For now, be prepared for a film with a drab feel.

I can see why Larrain wanted such a lack of rich color for his film about Lady Diana. The experience of watching Spencer is less concerned with traditional character arcs and plotting and more with theme and atmosphere. Diana feeling swallowed up by her environment is a key chord in the film’s dour song of the British monarchy. If the Sandringham estate looks as gorgeous as I assume it would in real life, that would take away from how Diana felt trapped mentally. Hence, the photography by Claire Mathon is expertly composed, yet by design, it can’t let viewers in (despite some fleeting moments of color that are loose and fun). Mathon also shot one of the most stunning films in recent years, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That film was about warmer themes: love, intimacy, secrets.

Over the course of nearly two hours, Diana is a prisoner of her routines and her mind. Her staff, led by Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), for the most part, only wants the best for her because, well, they don’t want to get fired, and they genuinely like Diana. But Diana can’t see much affection from those that wait on her hand and foot, literally. She might listen to the patient and caring head chef Darren (Mission Impossible‘s Sean Harris), but she’s never really hearing what he’s saying. There’s only one person she trusts among the immense staff, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her seamstress/assistant. But Maggie seems to be absent lately. Or is that all in Diana’s head too?

As a tightly wound experience of torment that even includes some body horror, Stewart has to balance her character with empathy while allowing unflattering aspects of her majesty to linger. There’s a situation that keeps popping up where Diana wants to hop the estate’s fence to visit the home she grew up in. The old grounds have been abandoned with only a scarecrow and a dusty house to explore. It’s a smartly observed situation. After her death in 1997, Diana was proclaimed “the people’s princess,” yet her life was never ordinary. If your family’s home was literally next door to royalty, you’re hardly some bloke living on the dole. That version of Diana is more apt for The Crown, as the young gal who was hip to New Wave and wanted to party with her mates. There has always been a modicum of Diana’s persona played as up being a “regular person,” even though this was never the case. Larrain and Stewart wisely tap into such contradictions.

With all of that in mind, none of Diana’s privilege takes away from how brutal her life was within the royal family. We often see how her freedom to do what she wants is only true for her and not her husband, Charles. The film posits that Diana was right to be afraid, yet she was also complicated, selfish, and petty. I prefer a real person to the one constructed by the tabloid press. Here is where Spencer shines.

Like Jackie, Spencer will not be for everyone. Some love the fantasy of New Camelot as well as the majesty of the United Kingdom’s most distinguished family. A psychological jaunt that includes bulimia, self-mutilation, and more might not be for them. For me, though, I applaud this kind of all-in approach to the material. Is this my favorite Kristen Stewart performance? No, go see Clouds of Sils Maria, but like Larrain, her willingness to “go there” delivers a strong performance. Is it Oscar-worthy? You bet.

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