‘Spencer’ Review: Deep dive into Princess Diana’s psyche


Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana – Neon Studios

Miranda Ljung-Baruth, Staff Writer

“Spencer”, the self-proclaimed fable chronicling Princess Diana, was released in theatres on November 5. Directed by Pablo Larraín and starring Kristen Stewart, the film takes place over one fateful holiday weekend at the royal family’s Sandringham Estate. It’s set in 1991, shortly after the news had broken about Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall.

“Spencer” was everything and nothing I expected it to be. I anticipated a slow, tragic biography, and instead received a chilling, psychological horror. The film externalizes Diana’s internal emotions in dramatic scenes as we follow along on her downward spiral into quiet insanity. Diana’s intrusive thoughts become shocking visions, and her anxiety materializes itself in a recurring hallucination of Ann Boleyn: a former queen of England who also married into royalty. Diana seems to see much of herself in Boleyn, who was beheaded by King Henry VIII when he became interested in another woman. These visions combine to create a tense and almost threatening atmosphere.  

The movie does not fixate on the well known aspects of Princess Diana. Her husband’s affair sets the underlying tone for the movie but is thereafter barely mentioned. The movie instead focuses widely on Diana’s mental instability, centering on her depression, anxiety, and eating disorder. This added a layer of ugly truth to the film. Watching someone so outwardly graceful and admired keel over a toilet isn’t pretty, but it’s something other depictions of Diana gloss over. While other shows and films including the princess likeDiana” orThe Crown” center on the royal family as a whole, “Spencer” is so focused on Diana that barely anyone else has a line. This makes for an incredibly intimate film.

Royal family’s Christmas dinner – Neon Studios

One turning point in the movie is Christmas Eve dinner. Diana realizes that Charles has gifted her the same pearl necklace he’s given his mistress. And with tears in her eyes, she can’t stop fussing with the pearls until they break and fly everywhere. A few land in the soup that, up until this point, she hasn’t dared to touch. Only now does she hesitantly put a spoonful in her mouth, complete with one of the pearls. This is shown to be a hallucination when she’s next pictured running down the hall with the pearls still on. This is the first of many intense visions she experiences. This scene shocked me. It felt like I was in Diana’s mind, experiencing her wildest daydreams and nightmares for myself.

Jonny Greenwood’s score stands out, succeeding in creating a sense of anxiety. It’s alluring. It’s daunting. But most of all, it’s suffocating, reflecting Diana’s situation. The music is mainly in a minor key and increases in tempo and volume during the movie’s more strenuous scenes. I inadvertently found myself on the edge of my seat, heart beating out of my chest, wondering what on earth could possibly happen next.

One thing that added a layer of bitter sweetness to the film is the depiction of Diana’s love for her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). The boys do a fantastic job at tugging on your heartstrings, especially Neilen. While Harry is sweet but too young to understand the situation, Neilen is able to play into William’s love and concern for his mother. One scene in which the children express their annoyance at attending Christmas dinner gives the impression that they have almost as much of a disdain for royal life as Diana. William is one of the only other characters apart from Diana that has significant lines, which emphasizes how close they were.

Kristen Stewart in the lead role of Diana uses darting eyes and small smiles to embody the princess in all of her quirkiness. This is one of Stewart’s first truly serious roles, most famously acting in movies like “Twilight” and “Charlie’s Angels”. Her performance has generated well deserved Oscar buzz.

‘Spencer’ Poster – Neon Studios

There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the film. Royal Expert Richard Fitzwilliams said in a tweet that he applauded the “merit” of Kristen Stewart’s performance but claimed that the movie itself was “badly flawed” and “factually incorrect.” But Princess Diana’s personal bodyguard, Ken Wharfe, told People Magazine that the film “was very, very Diana.” I think that the movie has been described as a fable, and it should be taken as such. 

I’ve never watched something as raw and persuasive as “Spencer”. Even while playing with imagination and surrealism, it felt so honest. I would strongly recommend going to see it in theatres when you get the chance.