Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Pablo Larrain

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Stella Gonet, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry.  

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A rather bland and uninvolving speculative look at a critical three days in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, Spencer is far from a traditional biopic.  

The film takes place over three days of Christmas in 1991, before Diana divorced Prince Charles. She had felt increasingly constrained and trapped by the strict adherence to protocol and tradition and felt like she was in a straitjacket. And Charles himself had grown distant and aloof as his affair with Camilla became more serious and had driven a wedge between the couple. Over the Christmas period Diana rebelled against the royal family traditions for the annual gathering at the royal palace at Sandringham House, in which everything was meticulously planned out to the last detail and tightly scheduled. Diana was even told which dress to wear for which occasion. And as rumours of the impending divorce grew, reporters gathered around Sandringham House. Diana was cautioned against giving the media any cause for further speculation. Increasingly isolated, Diana found support and sympathy from Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her loyal and longtime dresser, who dispensed sage advice. And there is some pleasant down time where she gets to relax with her two sons – the protective William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). 

Spencer has been written by Steven Knight (Locke, etc), and the filmmakers tell us from the outset that this is a “fable from a true tragedy” rather than an accurate historical record, and is an imaginary look at events from Diana’s perspective. The film has been stylishly directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, who here seems to take a similar approach to the material as he did with Jackie (2016), his fictitious look at Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Like that film, this one is serves up something of an impressionistic take on the material – it is meticulously crafted, featuring stunning costumes and production design and a formidable central performance from its lead actress. But this is a cold and impersonal film as it examines the mounting pressure facing the psychologically troubled and fragile Diana. Knight also works in minute details about her eating disorder and suggestions that she was given over to cutting herself in frustration at being trapped in a loveless marriage. 

Kristen Stewart is well cast as Diana and while she bears a fleeting resemblance to her, she effortlessly captures her style and strength, and her insecurities and her deteriorating mental state. Her strong, nuanced and committed performance here shows how far she has come from her Twilight years. But this is hardly a flattering portrait as Diana spends most of the film pouting and complaining and wandering around the sprawling corridors and grounds of Sandringham. But she gets to wear plenty of fabulous costumes and outfits, courtesy of costume designer Jacqueline Durran (Little Women, etc).  

This is a beautifully mounted production, and the production design from Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception, etc) is exquisite, capturing the opulence of the royal palace. The cinematography from Claire Mathon (Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, etc) is rich and she works in closeup a lot of the time, but she gives the material an almost poetic beauty. The music score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood evokes a sense of growing unease. 

Knight and Larrain work in some fantasy sequences in which Diana has interactions with Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII, who was executed when he wanted to marry a younger woman who could bear him a male child. Diana considers her a martyr and begins to feel a connection with this kindred spirit. But these moments are amongst the film’s weakest. 

The cast includes Timothy Spall as Major Gregory, a former military officer who is in charge of overseeing every detail of the family gathering, from the ritual weigh-in on arrival to ensuring that the timetable is strictly adhered to. He is also tasked with trying to ensure that the wayward and distracted Diana keeps to the program, but he proves to be a surprisingly and unexpectedly sympathetic character. Hawkins is also good in a smaller role as Maggie, and with her look and fashion sense she seems to be channeling the Oscar winning costume designer Edith Head. Sean Harris is Darren McGrady, the estate’s head chef who is in charge of the kitchen and the preparation of the lavish menu for the weekend, and he also proves to be sympathetic towards the troubled Diana and her feeling of discomfort and unease. Stella Gonet is cold and standoffish as Queen Elizabeth while Jack Farthing is also cold and cruel as Prince Charles. In fact, the monarchy come out of this film looking decidedly ordinary with their cold behaviour and indifference.  

Spencer is pretty much a dour and gloomy experience, but it ends on an upbeat and more optimistic note as Diana breaks away from the royal family and heads off to London determined to raise her two sons independently away from the suffocating strictures of the royal family. 


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