Director: Pablo Larraín, 2021
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkin
Music: Jonny Greenwood
A chilling psychodrama about coercive control, Spencer works equally well as a Hitchcockian ‘woman in peril’ horror and as a true-life insight into the dynasty that has ruled Britain for more than a century.
Full disclosure: I had initially swerved Spencer, the film about Princess Diana, on account of an abiding apathy towards anything about the Royal Family. I’ve never watched a minute of The Crown and was expecting more of the same. I couldn’t have been more wrong about this “fable from a true tragedy.”
I should have known better, with the film being written by Steven Knight (who directed Locke and wrote Easteern Promises) and directed by Pablo Larrain (who directed Jackie and produced the trans drama A Fantastic Woman).
Spencer is a chilling psychodrama centred on a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she is compelled to spend Christmas with her two children at the stately home of their grandmother – the Queen of England.
The stifling atmosphere of entitlement and privilege, and the claustrophobic air of control, seeps through every scene. Diana could not be more of a prisoner if she were in Colditz (and might have more chance of escape).
From the moment she arrives at Sandringham, where they force every guest to be weighed by a servant upon entry and exit (a “tradition” to demonstrate how well fed they have been over the holidays), she is a helpless pawn in their power game.
She never has a moment to herself – or her children – with a constant stream of maids and manservants observing her every move, and the Royals’ chillingly sinister enforcer, an Army major turned equerry played with polite perfection by Timothy Spall, on hand to ensure that she follows the house rules.
In the opening scenes we see Diana, breaking royal protocol by arriving after the Queen, due to getting lost in her Porsche on the Norfolk back roads.
At one point she stops to seek directions from bemused locals at a roadside caff, before finding herself in the grounds of her own nearby childhood home – a symbolic reminder of the ‘normal’ life she has left behind.
At Sandringham, servants wheel racks of pre-selected frocks down corridors lined with family portraits for her to wear at every moment of every day – breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as church and a shooting party.
They insist on dressing her, and even stitching her bedroom curtains closed to keep the long lenses of the papparazzi at bay, further reinforcing her sense of isolation and imprisonment.
At the Christmas meal, a frosty affair to say the least, none of the Royals speak to one another at all, sitting and starting silently as Diana – suffering from bulimia at the time – forces food down before fleeing the room to bring it back up.
In fact I don’t remember any dialogue at all between family members: apart from a few cuttingly critical comments from Charles to Diana, communication is conducted through members of staff.
Diana’s only ally, it seems, is her loyal personal maid, played with doe-eyed devotion by Sally Hawkins – a lone comfort against the suffocating hostility surrounding her.
The scenes of Diana with her children, William and Harry, display a tender side to her that’s entirely at odds with the way the Royals interact (or rather, don’t) with one other, and – whisper it quietly – force you to look at them in a rather different light.
It’s easy to regard the Royals as an elite ruling class (and they are) and bastions of privilege (and they are) and symbols of a way of life that ought to have been abolished centuries ago (and they are).
Yet you watch this and realise they, too, are victims of their own circumstance: for all the walk-in larders filled with lobsters and champagne and freshly-shot pheasants, and for all the liveried servants attending to their every need, no one seems to be actually enjoying their privilege.
And Diana herself, forced at one stage to look across a church congregation at her husband’s mistress, Camilla, staring daggers at her, comes across as the biggest victim of all.
Kristin Stewart’s performance strikes just the right tone, too, as does Jonny Greenwood’s spine-tingling score, and Larrain’s direction incorporates moments of fantasy that reinforce what is essentially a true-life horror story.
You’re unlikely to be queueing up for the Changing of the Guard or Trooping the Colour after this. It’s free on Amazon Prime if you’re interested.