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Spencer Embraces an Angry, Messy Princess Diana

In Pablo Larraín’s dreamlike movie, Diana is not the people’s princess but a woman in search of herself.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana at Sandringham in Pablo Larraín's “Spencer”
Courtesy of Neon
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana at Sandringham House, in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer”

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer opens on a frosty field in England at dawn, military trucks chuntering in a line toward a palace’s kitchens, which are hung with signs reading, “Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you.” With none of that precision, here comes Princess Diana, barreling down a country lane in her green Porsche convertible, running extremely late and flapping about with a map. A title card introduces what’s to come as “a fable from a true tragedy.”

It’s a country house weekend story, a bit like an Agatha Christie mystery, except without any killers fingered, set over three days in a fictionalized festive period in a nonspecific year. Kristen Stewart plays Diana, Princess of Wales, a wife who has gone severely off her husband and is suffering disruptions to her mental health. There’s a large ensemble cast, and Stewart plays off a handful of the most notable British actors in off-beat staff roles: Sean Harris as a Shakespeare-mangling head cook; Sally Hawkins as Diana’s loving personal dresser; and Timothy Spall as the queen mother’s terrifying equerry, who begins following Diana around the grounds of the estate with a glare and a strong suggestion that she start following the rules.

Diana didn’t follow those rules, in life, after all. Her deviation from the monarchy’s icy conduct made her the subject of unrelenting criticism during her lifetime. A good example is Tina Brown’s 1985 Vanity Fair cover story, which enumerates what Brown calls the “princess’s autocratic ways”: “She has banished all his old friends. She has made him give up shooting. She throws slippers at him when she can’t get his attention. She spends all his money on clothes. She forces him to live on poached eggs and spinach. She keeps sacking his staff,” the article laments. As much as the media projected disapproval, it went to extremes to capture any sign of emotion from Diana, dispatching troops of paparazzi to follow her around the clock. When she struck back at them, the press mocked her. “Her latest tactic now is to claim they are stalking her,” a 1996 Irish Times article scoffed.

After Diana’s death in 1997, the media quickly revised its image of her. It was much easier to make her look saintly or pathetic than to portray her as somebody three-dimensional and flawed: Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2013 film, Diana, for example, presented her decision to call the paparazzi on herself while on Dodi Al Fayed’s yacht as the relatable foible of a woman trying to win back her true love, Hasnat Khan. And she wasn’t in Stephen Frears’s The Queen at all—just her absence, and the rage she made the queen feel. Perhaps because guilt was so large a part of the public’s grief following Diana’s death, for helping to hound her to death with our attention, the risk of showing her in anything less than a positive light was too strong for those two films to look at her directly.

But there’s no denying that Diana was a person, not a saint, and she didn’t spend all her time caressing the terminally ill and defying land mines. Pablo Larraín has made a more daring and dreamlike movie than other attempts at the same subject, a movie willing to show a woman’s anger and emotional lability without deriding her for it. Like Hirschbiegel and Frears, he tells a story whose outlines we have all heard a thousand times. Unlike them, his Spencer is interested in the Diana that was petulant and capricious as much as she was beautiful: not the people’s princess, in his vision, but a woman in search of herself.

The chief form of Diana’s rebellion, in the film, apart from being rude to servants of various types, is not turning up to meals. Locked in the bathroom, she crouches over toilet bowls or gazes into the mirror, drifting into reveries and ignoring the inevitable knock on the door. “Ma’am?” a lackey will say. “Ma’am, they’re waiting.”

When she does show up, as at one breakfast, Charles berates her for her eating disorder. “The hens laid the eggs, the fishermen caught the fish,” and so on, all to bring Diana her breakfast. “Please,” he asks, could she “do them the courtesy of not regurgitating them into a toilet bowl?” Charles and the rest of the Windsors regard her behavior—not wanting to take part in a horrible festive tradition where they weigh family members before and after Christmas; refusing to conform to the palace’s plan for what outfit goes with what occasion—as selfishness. But she is also a threat to their power, a fact made clear by the almost malevolent role their home plays in the movie.

The setting is the royal family’s famously cold and unpleasant seat in Norfolk, Sandringham House, which production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, who worked on Inception, has turned  into a series of interiors that manage to look sumptuous and unwelcoming at the same time. Director of photography Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics) bathes the castle’s exterior world in grey and moss-green, the grounds’ elaborate paths and horticulture providing frighteningly symmetrical shots from above. Outdoors at night, the property is all fog and barbed wire, policemen in their absurd helmets stopping people in the dark as in the first scene of Hamlet.

The castle’s isolation and enclosedness, like one of those infinite-staircase optical illusions, start to feel maddening for the viewer, tricking the eye with distracting details and portraits of Henry VIII and his wives that seem to pop up on the walls as weirdly as they do in Diana’s dreams. Those dreams are provoked by a book left in her room, Anne Boleyn: The Life and Death of a Martyr, but the dead queen begins to haunt her. Boleyn was stubborn and fiery, and—as Hilary Mantel imagined in her Wolf Hall series—she fatally miscalculated her hand in the end. The dreams start to shade into hallucinations, until we are not sure whether we are in Diana’s dream, her waking life, or some patchwork of historical textures.

It’s hard to know what Spencer would be without its perfect costumes and soundtrack. The film’s costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, who began her career in wardrobe on Eyes Wide Shut and has won two Oscars, said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that she and her team “narrowed it down by having a time frame, which ran somewhere between 1988 and 1992,” and only strove for total accuracy with a few of the outfits, like “the red polo-neck and the dogtooth skirt that she wears the second costume into the movie,” and “the bomber, the blouson jacket that she wears at the end,” from a brand called Mondi, identical to the real one. Many of the outfits feel familiar even if they’re actually Durran’s creation, like the yellow sailor outfit and a wedding dress that appears in a flashback scene—it’s not the real one, but it has the big puffy sleeves and dwarfing veil that matter. 

The score, which is played at a very loud volume throughout the movie, almost pursues a duet with Stewart. Composed by Jonny Greenwood, it begins like an orchestra tuning up, then slides in and out of quite processional, English harmony—think the sedater Elgar. But a rumble comes in from out of what feels like the back of Diana’s mind and gradually becomes a rhythm section that pulls the music into jazz. Squawks and phrases rock back and forth like self-soothing motions as Diana starts wandering around at night, channeling Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn, chanting, “Tell them I’m not well, tell them I’m not well!”

It’s all extremely lovely to look at. Almost too lovely: Kristen Stewart’s nose is much smaller than Diana’s was, a fact that only matters because the princess developed her chin-down way of looking into the camera in order to disguise it. Without the nose, the pose doesn’t make sense. Nor is Kristen Stewart’s accent much cop. But she’s absolutely got it in the eyes, those big, blue, shiny appeals for your sympathy that know they’ve won before they’ve started.

One can’t help but root for the unhappy princess in any attractively told story, and Diana here is spectacularly unhappy. Always dissatisfied, like the princess who was so sensitive to a pea under her mattresses. A beautiful outsider, like Cinderella. A subversive princess who threatens the crown through her blood claim on her sons, like Mary, Queen of Scots. A girl who finds her own strength from within, and bucks convention’s chains, like Elsa from Frozen. In a director’s statement distributed among the press notes, Larraín writes that Spencer is “an upside-down fairytale.” By letting Diana misbehave in such picturesque fashion, he explores the idea of “princessiness” as a source of alarming power.

It’s in that trope that Larraín finds the movie’s politics, disguised under the pastel outfits and the pearls. As Diana, Stewart exhibits the same carelessness and entitlement that Kirsten Dunst also nailed in Melancholia. In a face-off with the equerry, for example, where he tries to get through to her and delivers a speech about watching a fellow soldier getting his head blown off in Belfast for the sake of her mother-in-law’s divine rule, she reacts with a toss of her head and an observation about pheasants. It’s frightening, and magnificent, to watch a beautiful young woman be cynical about her own beauty, then realize what’s possible if she starts refusing to perform gratitude.