Royalty is a prison built by the public and other royals. That’s a rather intuitive notion that director Pablo Larrain has explored twice now, rather intensely on both occasions. The first was Jackie, his portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy – an American, but the closest thing America has had to royalty. He looks at actual royalty in Spencer, another film named after a character who became famous through her marriage to an important man, important either because of his accomplishments or because of the accident of his birth. That Diana Spencer, wife of Britain’s future king, felt like a prisoner is something countless movies about her life have explored, but perhaps never with the skin-crawling alienation of Larrain’s distinct approach.


Death hovers over Spencer, the movie as well as the person. In an opening scene, a procession of town cars arrives at a palatial country estate, their wheels only narrowly avoiding the skull of a dead pheasant in the road. The experience of watching Spencer is the experience of waiting in agony to see which tyre will mangle that corpse into a bloody mess. It doesn’t happen in this scene, but we know that Diana’s future has that fate in store, which lends a funereal air to all the proceedings – a feeling enhanced by the ever-present low-lying mist.

It’s Christmas Eve 1991, and Diana (Kristen Stewart) is joining the rest of her family, both immediate and extended, without accompaniment and without any sense of where she’s going. She’s driven her own Porsche to the countryside, but without the benefit of GPS, she has no idea where she is and must ask directions at a local café full of gobsmacked patrons.

It’s not the first metaphor in a movie full of them. Another that contributes to both the themes of loss and disorientation is that the estate is just a stone’s throw from the house she grew up in, which has been boarded up and cordoned off by barbed wire due to rumours that it’s haunted. She stops to pluck a winter jacket that once belonged to her father from the bony scarecrow that stands guard. Before this three-day Christmas sojourn is over, Diana will haunt the house herself, as well as suffer a near total breakdown over the suffocations of royal traditions and lack of love in her life.

She does have her loving sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), whose personalities are split between their free-spirited mother and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), their priggish monarchist father, who would be a priggish monarchist even if it didn’t directly benefit him to be so. She also has the undying affection of her personal dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), as well as various levels of sympathy from the estate’s head chef (Sean Harris) and staff overseer (Timothy Spall). When Charles secretly has Maggie sent away as the latest salvo in their cold war, it sends Diana on a downward spiral, and she starts becoming obsessed with another miserable royal from history – Anne Boelyn, who was beheaded by her own husband.


Spencer is none too subtle. If it didn’t do everything it does so well, with such mood and such an overarching sense of dread, it would be tempting to accuse it of hitting the same note over and over again. That is to say, the film does do this, but its methods illustrating Diana’s unravelling are all so compelling, you don’t mind getting so many of them.

For all its objective beauty and opulence, this estate is a hollow mausoleum in terms of how it deadens Diana’s spirit. The extravagant dining menu for their stay, read endlessly by Harris to his staff and Spall to the royals, is something that is being force fed to her – somewhat literally, as she is subjected to a ritual of weighing herself upon arrival, to prove upon her departure that she’s gained the weight one might associate with the appropriate level of holiday indulgence. Never mind that Diana actually struggles with an eating disorder, a fact with which everyone present is well acquainted.


Spencer might not be as interesting as it is with another actress playing Diana. Stewart has rightly earned frontrunner status for this year’s Oscar with the way she fully inhabits the fallen princess. It was counterintuitive to cast an American to play Diana, but Larrain saw something in Stewart that convinced him she could pull it off, and she does a lot more than that.

The feathered hair frames her face in a way that makes her as much the spitting image of Diana as Emma Corrin on The Crown. It’s really Diana’s mannerisms – or at least how we imagine them behind closed doors and away from cameras – that Stewart enacts so splendidly. Her claustrophobia, her regret, her rebellion and even her joie de vivre are all on display. Stewart’s Diana is not the saint the press casts her as, nor the ungrateful obstructionist the royals see. She’s human, a fact the film’s title captures effortlessly.


Larrain used a discordant score to underline the mental state of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie, and Micah Levi delivered huge results. Jonny Greenwood’s music for Spencer is more indebted to a classical tradition, suggesting in subtle choices the deterioration of the royals’ regal façade. Claire Mathon’s cinematography might logically have cramped Diana in the frame, but it earns more mileage from long shots that capture an illusory sense of the freedoms Diana is permitted. Royalty is an institution that provides as much space as you could possibly want, and no ability to do anything in or with it.


After two films that hit such similar beats, Larrain may have this out of his system now, which is just as well – Spencer starts to become redundant near the end of its two hours. That could be because there is a certain built-in redundancy to the topic, especially as it is being explored both on the aforementioned The Crown, and in a new stage musical, to say nothing of the countless other past considerations. There’s a reason we’re still interested in what happened to Diana, though, which is that nearly 25 years after her death, we are still trying to figure out how it could have been prevented. Like Anne Boelyn, maybe she was always destined to lose her head.


Spencer opens today in cinemas. 

7 / 10