Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Written by: Steven Knight
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins
Given Princess Diana’s stature in the public consciousness, especially since her tragic death in 1997, it is easy to see how a film depicting her life could descend into an exercise in hero-worship. Check the critically savaged Diana (2013) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with Naomi Watts in the title role. That film focused on the final two years of Diana’s life and was heavily criticised for being grossly maudlin. Spencer, Diana’s maiden name, focuses on an even more condensed period of time, three days over the Christmas period 1991. It takes a bit of knowledge of monarchical history to appreciate what a tumultuous time this was. Screenwriter Steven Knight doesn’t want to hold anyone’s hand. Either that or he is banking on the fact that his audience has seen the latest season of The Crown (2016-).
Spencer is an admirable film in that it shirks all tired biopic tropes. Larrain and Knight realise the utmost importance in fully realised characterisation rather than leaving Diana’s legacy in popular culture to do the work for them. We are introduced to Diana, played here by a truly amazing Kristen Stewart, driving her open-topped Porsche through the English countryside. She is lost, in more ways than one. Late for the monarchies' meticulously planned Christmas festivities, she stops into a roadside greasy spoon to ask for directions- she is the People’s Princess after all. Diana is portrayed here as a figure on the cusp of rebellion, but one- having lived her entire life surrounded by nobility- who is not exactly sure what rebellion looks like. She arrived slightly late for a traditional Christmas photograph, wears the wrong dress for Christmas Day mass and gets up in the middle of the night to gorge on chicken legs and cake. These misdemeanors echo loudly in the house of Windsor. Diana is not toeing the line, she is not keeping up appearances.
Larrain and Knight’s mastery is in churning dramatic effectiveness out of Diana’s relatively first world problems. A point is made out of The Firm’s bizarre tradition of weighing each guest, before and after they arrive, ‘a bit of fun’ Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) labels it, measuring how good a time each individual has had. This has added implications for Diana, given her struggles with bulimia. These little routines elucidate that despite her decadent surroundings, Diana is in her own personal prison; her garments, chosen for her in advance, are labeled P.O.W. The film strongly links her to a previous tragic monarch Anne Boleyn, who was infamously beheaded by her husband King Henry VIII after being falsely accused of adultery and is another woman whose death elevated her importance to society.
Legacy and identity is an important motif in this film. Musing on the tradition of eventually paring down past monarchs to one word, for example William the Conqueror, Diana asks a confidante Maggie (Sally Hawkins) what her one word will be. Tellingly this question remains unanswered. Instead we get a sequence of Diana and Maggie frolocking free along the Norfolk coastline near Sandringham estate. History has dictated Diana’s tragic legacy, however there is something triumphant about this film’s ending. In this pinpoint in time she is a woman escaped and the possibilities, however brief, are endless.