I’m starting this review with a confession: I despise the Royal Family. I believe they’re archaic parasites with a family tree that’s basically a Mobius strip. I also hate paparazzi and UK tabloid culture because I believe in basic human decency. All of that might have you thinking I’d be pro-Princess Diana and excited for Spencer, Pablo Larraín 2nd attempt at profiling a historical wife with too much charisma to simply smile and wave from the side-lines. However, my hate for the Royals is so unwavering I usually avoid everything about them where possible, even films where they’re (rightfully) the villains, like this one.
The reason I’ve wasted about a fifth of my wordcount saying all this is so when you read the next sentence, you know I mean it. Spencer is a truly remarkable film. There are almost no gratuitous frames despite its excess, no wasted lines, and stand-out performances from every actor involved. I am unsure if I’ve seen a better film in the past few months, new or old.
Billed as a ‘fable from a true tragedy’, Spencer is a fictionalised account of Christmas 1991 at Sandringham (one of the many Royal residences they don’t pay for and have done nothing to deserve). We are plunged into the uncomfortably cold dregs of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) and Prince Charles’s (Jack Farthing) marriage.
The establishing shots of staff meticulously preparing for the Royals to arrive leave no question as to what this is: the tale of a life constrained by the unending, minute planning that comes along with being a part of the most-watched family in the world. One of Diana’s first lines involves her talking about being killed, and that idea of her dissolving, like a bug to the Royal family’s Venus Fly Trap, resonates throughout.
If you were the sort of pretentious dick to bring up Ulysses in conversation you might say Spencer has a Joycean sense of the past; “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” could be this film’s tagline. The use of the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Mason) – another victim of her English King husband’s desire to philander – only further adds to the sense of the inescapable nature of the past that runs throughout the film.
Stewart deserves major plaudits for her performance. Without her, the film – less a biopic than a minor psychological horror with fairy-tale elements – simply wouldn’t work. Timothy Spall is excellent as the all-knowing Major Gregory, tasked with minding Diana, his antiquated yet unerring sense of duty practically tangible through the screen. Stella Gonet is an incredible Queen. Ol’ Lizzie is a sinister, looming presence throughout, much like she is from the banknotes in my wallet, and although Gonet only has one line in the film, it’s one of the best.
Dialogue I would normally pick out for being overly instructive works perfectly. The set design, costuming, cinematography, and pretty much everything else is spot on. The way Larraín manages to blend fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, is what makes this better than drab, verging on sycophantic content like The Crown. But for all its artistic flair and ambition, at its heart Spencer is an excellent, heart-breaking portrayal of an incredibly lonely figure. And that’s what makes it such a compelling watch.
Sandeep is a writer based in London. He recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2021. He loves all kinds of beer, from cheap lagers to stouts so dark they would fight for Sauron.