Review: ‘Spencer,’ starring Kristen Stewart

November 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Spencer”

Directed by Pablo Larraín

Culture Representation: Taking place during a few days in December 1991, primarily in Sandringham, England, the dramatic film “Spencer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy royalty.

Culture Clash: Feeling trapped in a crumbling marriage, Princess Diana of Wales spends a restless few days at a Christmas holiday family gathering, where she tries to assert her independence in a family that wants to control her.

Culture Audience: “Spencer” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about Princess Diana and/or people who are fans of Kristen Stewart, who gives a riveting performance.

Kristen Stewart, Freddie Spry and Jack Nielen in “Spencer” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Spencer” is more of a fever-dream drama than a precise biographical portrait of the late Princess Diana of Wales, formerly known as Diana Spencer. In the title role, Kristen Stewart portrays Diana at a low point in the troubled princess’ life, but Stewart’s performance is the high point of this frequently repetitive and sometimes far-fetched film. Directed by Pablo Larraín and written by Steven Knight, “Spencer” is intent on portraying Diana as a tortured and wounded soul instead of making her a well-rounded, complicated person with other interests besides her children and her bad marriage. (The movie basically ignores Diana’s work as a humanitarian/philanthropist.) This fixation on Diana’s misery serves Stewart’s performance well, but it does somewhat of a disservice to the real Diana.

The first sign that “Spencer” veers into fantasy (which it does more often than some viewers might care for) is in the prologue, which labels the movie as “A Fable From a True Tragedy.” The movie’s fictional aspect continues in the opening scene, where Diana is seen driving by herself in her Alfa Romeo in the English countryside. It’s close to Christmas in 1991, and she’s on her way to a family gathering at Sandringham Estate of her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II. This scene is extremely unrealistic because Diana has no bodyguards or other security personnel nearby. And she’s not being followed by paparazzi, which would surely happen in real life, since it would be nearly impossible in those days for Diana to drive somewhere by herself undisguised without the media finding out.

The movie has an additional contrivance of Diana getting lost on the way to the estate. She tries to find her way by reading a map. “Where the fuck am I?” she mutters while looking in a confused manner at the map. This scene in the movie tries to make Diana look like she’s just a regular upper-class woman on her way to her family’s country estate for the Christmas holidays. Except Diana was no ordinary upper-class woman. At the time, she was royalty and probably the most famous woman in the world.

While she has gotten lost on the way to Sandringham Estate, Diana casually walks into a diner and asks “Where am I?,” as shocked customers gawk at her in silence. In reality, people would be approaching her and would quickly surround her, because she was so beloved by people around the world. Because Diana has presumably been to this estate many times before, it makes her look very unobservant (at best) or not very intelligent (at worst) that she could get lost on the way to a place she’s been to several times in her life.

Sandringham Estate is near where Diana grew up, so the movie makes a point of showing Diana pensive and wistful about her childhood. By all accounts, she had an unhappy childhood, due to her parents’ bitter divorce, although that family history is glossed-over/ignored in “Spencer.” The movie’s childhood flashbacks of Diana are brief and don’t have much bearing on the overall story. Kimia Schmidt portrays Diana at 9 years old, Greta Bücker portrays Diana as a teenager, and Henry Castello portrays Diana’s younger brother Charles Spencer when he was 9 years old.

While Diana gets lost driving, she comes across an open garden field that’s nearly deserted except for a scarecrow that she remembers being there, ever since she was a child. She walks through the field in her dress suit and high heels, and she takes the red jacket that the scarecrow is wearing. It’s at this point that you just know it won’t be the last time that Diana is seen with this scarecrow in the movie.

Diana sees royal head chef Darren McGrady (played by Sean Harris), who’s in this field too in that odd/contrived way in which movie characters show up in a scene without any explanation. He’s conveniently there to give Diana directions when she tells Darren that she’s lost. Darren asks Diana how on earth she was able to travel there by herself, without any security personnel, as required by royal protocol. Diana’s glib response is that she just walked out of the room where she was at, and she impulsively drove to the estate without telling anyone and without anyone else finding out.

Diana claims that she was able to make this getaway without her bodyguards noticing. We all know that wouldn’t really happen at this point in her life. Considering that she died in a 1997 car crash while being chased by paparazzi, it requires a a huge suspension of disbelief that Diana could just slip away unnoticed, by driving alone in a car somewhere while undisguised.

With this opening scene, “Spencer” tries a little too hard to push the improbable narrative that Diana could easily slip in and out of anonymity, undisguised, whenever she wanted. It’s the “whenever she wanted” part that’s the most incredulous because people with enough knowledge of the British Royal Family know how carefully the family’s public appearances are planned. It’s been well-documented how someone on Diana’s level of royal fame had to get strict approval and clearances to go out in public.

“Spencer” has other unrealistic scenes showing Diana casually going out in public, whenever she felt like it, without any security personnel. (For example, there’s a scene where she takes her sons to Kentucky Fried Chicken, where they order a meal at a drive-through window.) The concept that Diana could shed her fame and be anonymous when she wanted is a direct contradiction to the other narrative pushed by the movie: Diana lived her life like a hunted animal who was always under scrutiny by the media and controlled by the British Royal Family. It’s this more “tortured” narrative where Stewart gets to showcase her acting talent the most as Diana.

One of the more visually striking scenes in “Diana” is early in the movie, which shows a military-like procession of trucks and vans driving to the Sandringham Estate. Items in crates are being transported and guarded in these trucks and vans with the importance of top-secret weapons. What could possibly be in these crates? It turns out that the cargo consists of lobster and other seafood for the estate’s kitchen that will be preparing the royal family’s Christmas holiday meals.

The point that’s made is as subtle as a 21-gun salute. Viewers are supposed to notice the contrast between the arrival of Diana (alone and with no bodyguards) with the arrival of the seafood (which has more security escorts than most celebrities have), to show that the British Royal Family seems to care more about their food being protected than about Diana being protected on the way to the estate. Overseeing the kitchen is Chef McGrady, who leads his crew like a no-nonsense military commander.

Diana arrives late to this family gathering. The first person to greet her at the estate is Major Alistar Gregory (played by Timothy Spall), a longtime friend of the royal family, and he mentions it’s the first time he’s on royal duty at this gathering. The first thing that Diana has to do when she arrives is weigh herself on a large weighing scale placed in the foyer, and her weight is announced aloud. This weighing ritual has been a longtime royal tradition for people who arrive at the estate. When Diana gripes about it, Major Gregory replies sternly, “No one is above tradition.”

This forced weighing serves as a symbol of Diana’s insecurities over her weight. At the time, her bulima was a secret from the public. She later revealed this secret in Andrew Morton’s tell-all bombshell 1992 book “Diana: Her True Story In Her Own Words.” In “Spencer,” Diana’s bulima becomes a subplot, as there are multiple scenes of her vomiting in toilets and sneaking into the royal pantry for binge eating.

Chef McGrady knows about Diana’s eating disorder and discreetly avoids talking about it with her. Diana’s husband Prince Charles (played by Jack Farthing) isn’t as delicate about Diana’s feelings. Through clenched teeth and a condescending, whispered voice over the dinner table, Charles scolds Diana about her habit of getting up during a meal to vomit. Charles tells Diana that the kitchen staff went through a great deal of trouble to prepare the meal and the least she could do is show some respect and “not regurgitate the cooks’ hard work before the church bells ring.”

The world now knows that at this pont in Diana’s life in 1991, her marriage to Charles was close to a permanent collapse. (Charles and Diana announced their separation in December 1992, and they officially divorced in 1996.) However, Charles and Diana were still putting up a united front to the public in 1991. It was a façade that was taking a toll on Diana’s self-esteem and mental health.

Charles’ ongoing extramarital affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (played by Emma Darwall-Smith), a woman he dated before he met Diana, is depicted in the movie as some furtive and catty glances that Diana and Camilla exchange when Camilla is nearby at royal events. (Charles would later marry Camilla in 2005. “Spencer” stays focused primarily on a few days in Diana’s life in 1991.) Diana’s infidelities, which she later publicly admitted, are briefly mentioned but not shown in this movie, because it’s intent on making Charles the villain and Diana the victim.

The movie also makes a big to-do about Diana being upset over discovering that Charles gave her and Camilla identical pearl necklaces. There’s a melodramatic scene where Diana literally rips the necklace off of her neck and does something with the pearls (which won’t be revealed here) that is supposed to be shocking to viewers. Therefore, not only does “Spencer” have a royal woman literally clutching her pearls in distress, but there’s also an added horror element that the movie throws in too.

And speaking of horror-inspired elements, get used to seeing a ghost in this movie: Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife, who was beheaded in 1536 for treason and other charges. Anne Boleyn (played by Amy Manson) appears as a vision to Diana several times and speaks out loud. Diana, who is a distant relative of Anne Boleyn, says that she can relate to her because of being unhappily married to a British royal. The beginning of the film shows Diana reading the book “Anne Boleyn: Life and Death of a Martyr,” which seems to fuel Diana’s hallucinations of seeing Anne.

The only joy depicted in Diana’s life comes from her two sons: William (played by Jack Nielen) and Harry (played by Freddie Spry), who were 9 and 7 years old, respectively, at the time this story takes place. Some of the best scenes in the movie are showing Diana spending time alone with William and Harry. It’s in these scenes that she shows her playful, protective and loving side to her personality.

But in between, there’s more angst and unhappiness. Diana is an “outsider” in the British Royal Family. And this pariah status is depicted in various ways. For example, when she first arrives at the estate, Diana complains that the indoor temperature is too cold. She’s annoyed that the royal family, instead of allowing her request to turn on the indoor heating, expects people to just wear heavier jackets and use more blankets inside. It’s an indication of how Diana has so little control/respect/power in the family that she can’t convince them to turn on the heat in their own home.

Diana is also late for the family’s Christmas portrait. This tardiness could be her subconscious way of rebelling or her way of showing that she wanted to delay spending time with certain members of the family as much as possible. In “Spencer,” Charles is Diana’s main antagonist.

The other members of the British Royal Family are depicted as emotionally distant from Diana, and they don’t have much to say to her. Stella Gonet is Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Sammel is Prince Philip, Lore Stefanek is the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Berrington is Princess Anne, Niklas Kohrt is Prince Andrew, and Olga Hellsing is Sarah Ferguson. In real life, Diana and Sarah were close friends when they were married to brothers Prince Charles and Prince Andrew. However, this friendship between Diana and Sarah is completely ignored in “Spencer,” to serve the movie’s agenda of making it look like Diana was completely friendless and isolated.

Later in the movie, the contrast is shown between how Charles (who spent his entire life in the public eye) and Diana (who became famous at age 19 in 1981, when she and Charles got engaged and married within a seven-month period) are handling the media scrunity. Charles is resigned and jaded when he explains to her how he deals with it all: “There are two of you and two of me: The real one and the one they take pictures of.”

Because the rest of the adult royals have an aloof attitude toward Diana, the movie shows her confiding more with the royal servants than with members of the royal family. The staffer whom Diana bonds with the most is royal dresser Maggie (played by Sally Hawkins), an amiable worker who has immense admiration of Diana. As an example of how acutely aware Diana is of being in a royal building that goes back several generations, she tells Maggie, “The dust in this house suddenly contains everyone who’s ever stayed in it.”

But since the movie makes it look like the royal family didn’t want Diana to get close to any of “the help,” Maggie is abruptly sent away and transferred to work somewhere else. Diana is disappointed and upset, because Maggie was her closest confidante at the estate and because the decision to send Maggie away was made without Diana’s knowledge or input. Diana’s efforts to get Maggie re-instated at Sandringham Estate just lead to more examples of Diana feeling ignored and disrespected by the royal powers that be. Maggie and Diana later see each other again in a brief reunion, where Maggie makes a personal confession to Diana.

Maggie is replaced by a dresser named Angela (played by Laura Benson), who isn’t as warm and friendly as Maggie. Angela tactfully reminds Diana not to get undressed with the room curtains open, because someone could take photos and sell them to the tabloids. Apparently, Diana got undressed with the curtains open during her visit at the estate, the royal family found out about it, and passed the word down to Angela to tell Diana not to do it again. The movie uses it as an example of why Diana felt paranoid that the other members of the royal family were spying on her.

Even though Stewart gives one of the best portrayals of Princess Diana that’s been on screen, Stewart’s performance is very self-conscious and very self-aware. You never forget the entire time that she’s acting, compared to a performance where an actor truly disappears into the role of a real-life person and you feel like you’re watching a documentary instead of a scripted drama. It’s a performance where you can tell Stewart was thinking while filming this movie: “I hope I get an Academy Award and other awards for this performance.”

Despite this type of very self-conscious acting, Stewart portrays the real Diana’s mannerisms and speech patterns with uncanny accuracy. It’s especially true in the way that she walks in public when many cameras are present. She slightly hunches over with her head slightly bowed, while looking up with a smile but with sad eyes that convey her true feelings. Her body language shows that she’s not completely relaxed. Stewart went through her own paparazzi/tabloid hell during the height of her “Twilight” movie fame from 2008 to 2012 (although it wasn’t nearly as intense as what Diana went through), so it’s easy to see how Stewart could draw from her own personal experiences in this exceptional portrayal of Diana.

In real life, Stewart is 5’5″, while Diana was 5’10″—Diana’s tall female height was one of her more striking physical characteristics. In “Spencer,” thanks to the artistic cinematography of Claire Mathon, this height discrepancy is cleverly disguised by filming Stewart with many closeups, upward angles (to make her look taller), and in cutaway shots when she has a scene with an actor who would have been close to the real Diana’s height.

In addition to the above-average cinematography and noteworthy acting from Stewart, “Spencer” has outstanding costume design from Jacqueline Durran and a haunting but effective musical score from Jonny Greenwood. And any movies about the British Royal Family usually have to meet high standards for production design. Fortunately, “Spencer” production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and the rest of the team met those high standards.

“Spencer” takes risks, but not all of them pay off in the way that the filmmakers perhaps intended. It can certainly be appreciated that the filmmakers didn’t want to do a standard Princess Diana biopic, which has already been done multiple times, usually with middling results. And her personal problems should not be ignored when telling any aspect of Diana’s adult life and her doomed marriage to Prince Charles.

However, leaning into a story arc that involves Diana hallucinating about the ghost of Anne Boleyn, among other things, somewhat backfires because it reinforces a stereotype that Diana had a severe mental illness. In real life, Diana said the stigma of mental illness was a negative stereotype that was used against her. One of Diana’s public complaints about the British Royal Family was they tried to make her look “crazy” to the point where she might be considered “unfit” to carry out royal duties.

Yes, Diana admitted to being suicidal at one point in her life, but it seems a bit irresponsible for filmmakers to make a gigantic leap from Diana being depressed to being so delusional that she’s seeing a ghost. This filmmaking choice is a bit off-putting because it seems like it was done for melodrama’s sake, not with a great deal of compassion. If not for Stewart portraying Diana with humanity and as a person trying to stay dignified in degrading situations, “Spencer” would be a hollow exercise in filmmakers using Diana’s fame to do an exploitative movie about her private pain.

Neon will release “Spencer” in U.S. cinemas on November 5, 2021.