REVIEW: ‘Spencer’ is a more striking artistic fable than a Princess Diana biopic

Abigail Celoria, Contributing Writer

The royal family is a topic that popular media has always been eager to investigate. With several movies and television shows based around them, audiences have seen innumerable iterations of the Windsor family throughout the years. “Spencer,” directed by Pablo Larraín, is the most recent addition to this canon. Taking place during the infamous Christmas holiday at Sandringham House, the film focuses in on Princess Diana’s (Kristen Stewart) state of mind leading to her separation with Prince Charles.

However, it is not the traditional royal biopic viewers might expect. Larraín is not one inclined to a neat retelling. The film’s intertitle, “a fable from a true tragedy,” suggests from the start that there will be more to this story than what has already been explored, and Larraín delivers on this. With writer Stephen Knight, he crafts an atmosphere of entrapment that Princess Diana longs to escape from.

Rather than go the traditional route of focusing on the entire royal family, the story zeroes in on Diana alone. It is clear she is a woman under lock and key. Small elements of tradition like the weighing and scheduled outfits demonstrate the scrutiny she is under, which eventually takes tangible form in Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall). This mounting anxiety allows motifs to emerge, giving “Spencer” an arthouse feel as lucid images and bulimic episodes depict Diana’s worsening state of mind.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer” (2021). (Pablo Larraín/Komplizen Film)

With this intense character focus, Diana’s perspective frames all of her interactions for the audience, allowing little sympathy for the other royals. In fact, the staff plays a bigger role in events than the family does. They are either acting as confidantes or enforcing the wishes of the royals, the latter of which becomes more frequent throughout the film. That Diana has so few interactions with the family is actually a strength to this film, for we see the reaches of their power even when they are not directly present.

The greatest strength of this film is undoubtedly Kristen Stewart’s performance as the Princess. Stewart acts her heart out as this moody, distressed Diana, making a film that could have failed without such a dedicated lead. She captures both the Princess’ strained complacency and mental deterioration perfectly, as well as the interplay between both in particularly dramatic moments. Her few moments of joy before the climax when with her children, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), are portrayed brilliantly, her love for her children providing a clear source of happiness in an otherwise depressing film.

From cinematography to design to sound, “Spencer” delivers. The camera often follows Diana closely in moments of distress, and discordant music signals the same. It is an artistic choice that works well to the film’s theme.

Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” (2021). (Pablo Larraín/Komplizen Film)

The motif emphasis, though, does not manage to retain the same effect. It begins subtly with the introduction of Diana’s self-comparison to Anne Boleyn, the pearl necklace and her family’s old home. These are all done artfully, appearing at key moments when tension is high. During the only scene in the film where Charles (Jack Farthing) and Diana have a private conversation, he rolls a billiard ball toward her that she drops on his exit. During another, one of the staff has sewn the curtains closed after Diana refuses to close them herself. Such small beats drive this internally motivated story forward to an admirable effect.

However, as the film wears on, Larraín drops story for mood. It is less about Diana taking actual steps toward freedom and more about the need to emphasize that she longs for it. This makes the climax feel a bit unearned, as there is no significant internal shift that motivates her to leave Sandringham with her children. Why would more motifs be the answer if they were not enough to encourage it early on? This is likely the most frustrating part of a film set up so well to deliver a punch, but flounders on execution.

With this film being a biopic, another question arises: is “Spencer” accurate to Princess Diana’s story as we know it?

Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” (2021). (Pablo Larraín/Komplizen Film)

In some ways, yes. It does justice to her bulimia and self-harm in ways that other royal media has not. Larraín is not afraid to distort the glamorous, perfect image that pop culture sometimes makes of the Princess, reemphasizing her struggles as a royal. In other ways, though, it tends to overemphasize mood themes in the reoccurring motifs, making this more of an arthouse experience than a realistic dive into the Princess’ relationships.

“Spencer” is not quite narrative in the traditional sense. Sequences without consequence to the plot make up the majority of its end, opting instead to swath the Princess in a fantastic, symbolic air. While this is not necessarily something to dislike, it does not fit as neatly into the genre as some viewers may have expected. This film is likely to be polarizing amongst both general audiences and fans of Diana, who go in anticipating a biopic but come out with an entirely different experience.

Even then, though, “Spencer” doesn’t claim to be anything but a beautiful fable. It takes one of history’s most cherished figures and gives her distress a new lens, one more sympathetic to the psychological struggles she faced as a member of the royal family. While sometimes overindulgent in its own artistry, it is not something to disregard.