Venice 2021 review: Spencer (Pablo Larrain)

“Kristen Stewart gives the performance of her career as the embattled princess.”

I can still remember where I was when I first heard the news that Diana Spencer had died. Jetlagged after a flight to New York, I woke up at an ungodly early hour and flipped on the TV to while away the time until breakfast. Suddenly I understood older people always going on about where they were when JFK was shot. Because of course this wasn’t just ‘Diana Spencer’, this was Lady Di, Princess Diana, the People’s Princess. Almost 25 years after her death the memory of Diana is still very much alive. Why has her image endured? A style icon and activist both, she brought glamour to a British royal family that was totally devoid of it, which made her incredibly popular and one of the most influential people of her time. The public lapped up the fairy tale story of the charismatic young woman swept away by a prince, pushing her into the realm of legend. But fairy tales do come to an end at some point…

Pablo Larrain’s Spencer certainly isn’t the first film to try and depict the tumultuous life of its namesake from the moment she became royalty; the best known is probably Oliver Hirschbiegel’s (rather dreadful) Diana starring Naomi Watts. But with Jackie the Chilean director had already proved that to him a biopic is not necessarily a trip through key moments in the life of the person at the story’s heart, and Spencer, albeit slightly less abstract, is no different. Basically set in one location (Sandringham House) over the course of one Christmas, Spencer is less a biopic and more a look at this bird trying to escape from a gilded cage. A pheasant, perhaps?

Every second, every inch of Diana’s life in the royal family is planned, measured, followed. Everything is protocol, and protocol is everything. Like Gandalf, a princess arrives never late, nor early, but precisely when she needs to. Or is told to arrive, anyway. And it’s driving Diana over the cliff. She barely has contact with her husband, and when she does the conversations are tense. The Queen, even less so. She adores the company of her sons, but they are still too young to fully comprehend why mama is losing it. She can confide in the staff, in particular her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and cook Darren (Sean Harris), but the latter tells her to be careful even speaking her mind to them, because everything she says, everything she does is currency. And there is the ever-watchful eye of Timothy Spall as the royal household’s watchdog. Sandringham House is as big as one would expect a royal palace to be, but it’s a prison and is filmed as such. Several times throughout the film Diana tries to escape, most often towards her old family home next door, a metaphor of a simpler, happier life. Outside she can breathe, if she can escape the photographers. “They have long lenses,” she is warned, but to her they feel like microscopes. Her whole life is under scrutiny, all spontaneity knocked out. Spontaneity is not traditional, you see, and tradition is paramount. Normal people have three tenses: past, present, and future. But when you’re a British royal the future doesn’t exist, and past and present are the same.

When she arrives at Sandringham House, Diana finds a book on Anne Boleyn on her bed. ‘Life and Death of a Martyr’, an eerily prophetic title considering Diana’s life and untimely death. Boleyn was accused of having a lover, where it was actually Henry VIII who had one. She was beheaded for it. History repeats itself: Charles tells her there are rumors of another man, but his mistress (Camilla Parker Bowles) is out in the open for Diana to see. She doesn’t get beheaded, but she almost wishes she were, to escape the suffocation.

Kristen Stewart gives the performance of her career as the embattled princess. She has the mannerisms and the posture down, and the posh British accent with Diana’s specific affectation only falters in places. But what she really catches is Diana’s sadness and desperation. It’s a bravura turn in which Stewart is the focal point of virtually every scene, carrying the film on her frail shoulders. Claire Mathon’s cinematography, often employing wide lenses up close to dizzyingly trap Stewart within the frame, is cold in tone, reflecting both the physical coldness within the palace (one does not turn up the heat; extra blankets will do) and the psychological coldness Diana meets down every hallway and in every dining room. Hawkins and Harris give fine supporting performances, Hawkins in particular playing loose in a late scene where she confides a secret to the woman who has so often confided her secrets to Maggie. But all begins and ends with Stewart navigating the minefield that is the British royal family and all it entails.

The main criticism to be leveled at Larrain’s Spencer is that it doesn’t really break new ground or have surprises in store. Diana’s increasing despair and paranoia are well captured, but there can only be so many scenes in which she has to dodge household staff or skip out of some function. The costuming (per Jacqueline Durran) is beautiful, but in essence no more than copies of the original outfits. Stewart gives her all to put some soul into the film, but Larrain remains mostly detached, as if observing the little bird fluttering in its cage with curiosity, not empathy. This leaves Spencer as a portrait of a woman trapped in a life she doesn’t want to live, in a place where she doesn’t know where she is, but gives us very little to take away from the film other than Diana being, like Anne Boleyn, a martyr. It doesn’t show why Diana’s image has endured. Larrain clearly wants Spencer to be Diana’s ‘Life and Death of a Martyr’, but there is not enough life in the film for that.