Film Review: “Spencer” Takes A Sledgehammer to Princess Diana’s Legacy

Spoiler Alert: This review goes into detail about the film, so if you have not seen it, you’ve been warned.

Photo: NEON

As someone who has chronicled Diana’s all too short life (and her Shakespearean death) for decades, I will admit I have come to feel somewhat protective of her legacy. To that end, I have always been mystified why filmmakers have never come close to capturing the complexities and contradictions that defined one of the most famous women of all time. And why, in the name of all that is holy, can’t anyone get Diana’s hair right?

Diana’s story has often been considered a prologue to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s hyperbolic tale of their ‘escape’ to America in recent years. In “Spencer,” Diana is the star – but she’s a tortured, victimized woman who has lost the plot and is slowly spiraling into madness. “Spencer,” directed by Pablo Larrain (best-known for directing the Oscar-nominated “Jackie”) and written by Steven Knight, is a dark and surrealistic version of a chapter in the princess’ story.

The film focuses wholly on Diana on the brink as demonstrated by her brittle fragility and the overwrought histrionics that consumed her during the three-day Christmas holiday in the early nineties at Sandringham. The film maintains this is when the princess allegedly decided to separate from Prince Charles.

“Spencer” takes a sledgehammer to Princess Diana’s legacy depicting her as a madwoman losing her grip on reality. I hated it.

Diane Clehane

We are told the film is “a fable based on a true tragedy” during the opening credits. “Spencer” is more like a horror story with silent monsters (the royals, of course) and a creepy fictional watcher (Timothy Spall) who freaks a tormented Diana out at every turn. The film is full of not-so-subtle symbolism.

It’s no accident that during the three days Diana is imprisoned (in her mind) by the cold, unfeeling royals, Diana and her sons’ pleas to warm up drafty Sandringham House are ignored. At one point in the film, Diana dresses a scarecrow in a nearby barren field in a costume-like ‘royal’ outfit she’s worn leaving the isolated totem with its outstretched arms alone and ignored.

It is difficult to reconcile Diana, who brilliantly leveraged her worldwide popularity and masterfully communicated through her appearance with the paranoid, childlike Diana in “Spencer” who breaks down in tears as she faces a scrum of photographers on Christmas Day.

That is one of the few scenes where Diana’s wardrobe is spot on. The rest of her wardrobe just misses – except for the wedding gown which looked very much like the real thing. In reality, the princess glowed on Christmas Day in 1993 in her red coat and black-veiled hat as she greeted the crowd outside the church with Prince Charles and their sons, outshining the rest of the royals as she did any time she appeared with members of “The Firm.”

The film’s sets and art direction are exquisite, setting moviegoers’ expectations high for the rich, detailed storytelling “The Crown” delivers, but director Pablo Larrain clearly felt more comfortable evoking an ominous mood (Think “The Shining,” but not as entertaining) than developing the plot.

Watching the 111-minute film was, at times, excruciating as Diana’s suffocation becomes the viewers as we wait for something, anything, to break as “Spencer’s” endless monotony drags on. Johnny Greenwood’s melancholic score and Larrain’s occasional use of shaky cameras does set the viewer on edge, but not always for the right reasons.

Heavy-handed dialogue makes the glacially paced film feel even more stilted. (Which was likely intentional.) Larrain may have assumed most moviegoers are unfamiliar with the royals and their traditions, but there is far too much exposition in a film that aspires to be more style than substance. Some scenes meant to shock instead come right up to the edge of campiness.

Early in the film, Diana intentionally arrives late to Christmas Eve dinner with the royals and gets a frosty reception from a steely-eyed Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet). The princess is filled with rage over the discovery Charles’ Christmas gift to her is identical to the same strand of oversized pearls that he gifted his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles (briefly seen, but never mentioned by name).

As she struggles to eat the first course, a creamy green soup with a perfect dollop of cream at its center, she pulls at the pearls around her neck until they break free from the necklace and tumble into her soup. No one seems to notice (Charles looks up briefly before returning to his meal) as Diana frenetically scoops up the pearls and loudly crunches on them before swallowing. Horrible pains kick in and send her careening down a hallway to back to her room, where she throws up. There are several scenes involving Diana’s bulimia which could be a trigger for some viewers.

Diana encounters the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) several times in the film after she begins reading a book about the beheaded Queen that someone has left on her bed. Thankfully, the tragic second wife of Henry VIII has her head about her as she cautions Diana about her fate if she stays with the royals, but the scenes are as lifeless as the centuries dead Queen.

The scenes where Diana mournfully wanders the grounds and sneaks away from Sandringham to her nearby boarded-up family home feel strangely flat and does not do anything to add interest to the story. The overly long montage of Diana dancing in the palace wearing many different gowns would have benefited from some editing.

While all the royal family members are briefly seen (but not heard) in “Spencer,” it is Kristen Stewart’s film. The Oscar buzz Stewart has gotten for her performance genuinely baffles me. The praise directed at her seems more about the actor’s decision to move out of her comfort zone to play Diana rather than for the performance itself. I never once forgot I was watching Kristen Stewart play Diana. In a way, it almost felt like stunt casting. When the actor made the first “Twilight” film in 2008, Stewart had her own struggles with instant and intense worldwide fame.

Her performance does have some fine moments. Stewart is at her best in scenes with the actors playing Diana’s children (Jack Nielen as William and Freddie Spry as Harry). But mostly Stewart veers into caricature territory with her breathy, uncertain, and defiant Diana reacting badly towards anyone who dares to question her.

Stewart’s Diana is more anger and despair than vulnerability and independence but her exchanges with Maggie, her fictional dresser with a secret, bring “Spencer” to life for those few minutes when the women have conversations rather than just recite dialogue. Diana’s confidante is beautifully played by Sally Hawkins, whose name I expect to find on many lists come awards season.

The criminally underused Jack Farthing (who so brilliantly portrayed the vulnerable villain George Warleggen in the BBC One series “Poldark,”) as Prince Charles only gets to make a few cutting remarks about Diana’s bulimia and lectures her on behaving like a royal “for the good of the country.” The final scene Farthing and Stewart have together left me wondering how the film would have benefited if the actors had faced off in just one more dramatic encounter.

The final time we see Diana after she has escaped the English countryside with William and Harry, it is not an exhilarating moment because we all know how the story ends. In the film’s final minutes, “Spencer” lands its only gut punch. Diana’s wistful look at her boys before the credits roll finally makes the point this stifling, airless film was about a real person whose fate really was a true – and terrible — tragedy.

Review – Grade: C

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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