Diana Spencer was a girl who just wanted to dance. To be as free as a bird soaring through the air. But when she married into the Royal Family, her wings were plucked and she could no longer fly. Frightened, like a pheasant hunted for sport, she had nowhere to run. The fairytale that the world gathered around their televisions to watch would one day turn into tragedy. In his new film Spencer, director Pablo Larraín delivers once again a fascinating portrait of a beloved, misunderstood figure. Diana, Princess of Wales, was an enigma. Despite the lenses of the press examining her like an insect, we never saw the woman suffering behind those palace walls. Larraín and writer Steven Knight have crafted a tale of psychological horror as the audience watches a woman fight for the agency she needs to take back her life.
What’s immediately striking about Spencer is Claire Mathon’s cinematography. Muted in color, each scene feels like it’s shrouded by a heaviness that can only be compared to thick fog. It’s an uneasy atmosphere that only dissipates at the film’s end when Diana (Kristen Stewart) is able to leave the field of landmines that is Sandringham House on Christmas. When we first meet her, she’s on her way to the festivities. No driver or security, she’s on her own. An example of the very few moments of freedom she gets in her new life. Curiously, she’s lost. “How could I get lost in a place I used to live,” she asks. Her childhood home is right next to Sandringham House, but that’s ancient history.
When she arrives, her frustration and discomfort only get worse when she’s greeted by a new page. Unlike the page she’s used to, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) is all-seeing, all-hearing, nosey, and untrustworthy. She’s also greeted by the coldness of the environment, both literally and figuratively as there’s no heating and everyone is cold towards her. With a divorce looming and rumors of her “disintegration” due to the family’s knowledge of her eating disorder, she’s walking into hostile territory. If it weren’t for the special moments spent with William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), and the comforting presence of her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), this joyous holiday affair would turn into a horror film more like Black Christmas.
Jacqueline Durran’s impeccable costumes are laid neatly on a rack with tags indicating when Diana is to where them. For dinner, she grabs a black dress, which she says fits her mood. But despite her insistence on wearing it, Maggie convinces her otherwise. What really clashes with Diana’s mood, and the tension building in the house, is production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas’s gorgeous seasonal decor, complete with the bright, twinkling lights of a Christmas tree. When dinner – prepared like a brigade arming themselves for defense on dangerous territory – is finally served, it’s mechanical. Everyone in the Royal Family is following the same regimentation, which Diana refuses to repeat as she gorges on a soup of her own pearls. Playing on the psychological, this act may be all in her mind but it’s a representation of pica. Like in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow, it’s symbolic of a woman desperate for control in a world where she has none.
Larraín and Knight’s Diana is obsessed with Anne Boleyn. The second wife of King Henry VIII and mother to Elizabeth I, she was beheaded on accusations of adultery. A book on Boleyn’s life, left on Diana’s bedside, sends her down a spiral of paranoia. Believing everyone is conspiring against her, she’s trapped and suffocating. As you watch Stewart perfectly capture the myriad of emotions that Diana goes through over these three days, you feel desperate to free her. It’s like watching a horror film where someone is trapped in a haunted house with a monster, and no matter where they turn, they can’t escape it. You realize, as Diana speaks to an old jacket of her father’s that once hung on a scarecrow, that what she’s really haunted by is the ghost of Spencer. The ghost of her old life and the old Diana.
As Charles (Jack Farthing), an unsympathetic stickler for order and tradition, tells Diana that there must be two of her, one for private and one for the public, you can feel her being pulled apart in all directions as she’s not allowed to simply be herself. Stewart’s endearing performance perfectly reflects Diana’s internal struggles. Capturing every facet of her is Stewart’s every movement, head tilt, inflection and look. A performance that one can consider her best yet. What also helps in understanding Diana is Jonny Greenwood’s score. There’s a mix of melancholy and something sinister in it as, if you listen closely, instruments mimic the sound of a woman screaming in one scene (signally the terror to come perhaps.) The classic piano and violin, which contrast with the sound of a saxophone, symbolize the clashing personalities of both the Royal Family and Diana herself. The score takes us on a journey at understanding how the family is so stuck in the past, therefore blending into the present, that they can’t change themselves for a new future. Diana was different; a free, forward-thinking spirit for which those around her were not. A soul like hers couldn’t stay trapped in that family forever, so in the film, as in life, she gets out in her own way.
A significant part in the opening scenes of Spencer is a pigeon lying dead on the road to Sandringham, narrowly escaping being run over. Perhaps foreshadowing her own fate, but Diana lives forever as she remains the people’s princess. In a conversation with Maggie, she wonders how people will remember her, and during that conversation, Maggie reminds her never to forget she is loved; that she is loved by her boys and more people than perhaps she knew.