The most important thing about Princess Diana is that she died. This is not to be reductive to the tumultuous and complicated life she led before her untimely passing, but from the arc of history Diana’s life will always exist under the shadow of her death. It’s the first thing one learns about her, it backfills everything else with ominous meaning and portent, and it acts as a thematically tragic conclusion to a life that was all about narrative. If an author were writing a story of the person of Diana they couldn’t come up with a more appropriate end. Thus any media dealing with Diana is in someway about her passing. Whether directly or indirectly, it is the ghost that haunts any depiction of her life.
Chilean director Pablo Lorrain knows that, and his latest entry in his work of chronicling historical figures (Following Neruda and Jackie) is all about contending with the life of somebody who is ultimately doomed. Spencer never explicitly references what happens to Diana after it’s exact moment, but its a film drenched in death. As Lorrain and star Kristen Stewart create the emotional of landscape of a person with a short future without ever announcing to the audience what is going to happen.
Lorrain is not much interested in biography, even if he is fascinated by history, and Spencer is no different. This isn’t really a movie for a person who can’t wait for the next season of The Crown, or whiles away the hours listening to podcasts about the subject, or might even falter to hit up the hopeless Diana musical. No Spencer is about imagining what the interior life of someone who has quite literally no control over themselves might look like. A twitchy diorama of psychosis and fear that plays closer to a horror film than any form of expected biopic. Spencer is an expressionistic take on the past, not a piece of historicity.
So the film follows princess Diana, deep in the throws of her marriage with Charles as his affair continues, as she joins the royal family for a Christmas holiday sometime in the early 90s. We are privy to much of Diana’s struggles, her bulimia, her isolation from her husband and other members of the family, and her inability to act without excessive scrutiny from inside and out. The more she struggles the greater the resolve in her grows to possibly leave the royal family.
In a certain way Spencer plays a bit of rope a dope with the audience. Conceptually it does provide the intrigue that might lure the casual viewer to the theater. Stewart is a big star playing a major historical figure with an accent. That’s gotta be juicy. Yet Lorrain immediately puts up walls and abstracts what is on screen. He gives a warning that this is “fable” upfront, but that not be enough for the unsuspecting viewer being pulled into places of pure impressionism and surrealism.
The first front in keeping one off guard is in fact Stewart. The star does a pretty commendable accent, but the film leans in to the fact that you are watching a famous person play another famous person. You’re never going to be fooled into thinking that Stewart is actually Diana, and Lorrain knows this. This is, after all, a version of history, and thus can be constructed out of elements that seem intentional and slightly artificial. What Stewart does completely sell is the emotional turmoil. You can feel the terror and inability to live beyond the confines of the royals in every shot of Diana’s face, and that’s a lot of shots as Stewart is in nearly every frame of this movie. If you can’t buy into the thing she’s selling it will be a hard watch.
That’s not all. Lorrain might be tackling “reality” but in a manner that upends the “real.” The grainy 16mm cinematography give everything a hazy pall. Like this is indeed a memory or a dream in and of itself. Lorrain frequently films Stewart dominated by architecture or outfits, dwarfing the actor in the ceremony that her life demands. And there are more than a few moments of pure fantasy, as Diana imagination pulls on her sadness and paranoia, making the world even more claustrophobic. Add on top an excellent Jonny Greenwood score that bounces back and forth between atonal chamber music and rumbling jazz fusion and one can barely find a a cut through the emotional clutter.
Everything just keeps heightening and become more detached from what the world in a manner that makes sense when considering the absurdities of royal life. Lorrain constructs the rituals of the family holiday as if they were part of some obscure cult religion, adhering to obtuse form and purpose that lost meaning centuries ago. There is frequent talk about legacy, and how, if Diana does indeed become queen one day, she will have to consider life as something far beyond a person. A symbol that people will hold in importance way beyond what a single person can theoretically bear. It’s enough to make anyone crack up, even if their husband wasn’t cheating and they didn’t suffer from an eating disorder.
There are moments of brightness that peak through here. Diana’s relationship with her children is legitimately heartwarming, allowing a brief respite of humanity in world that seems populated only by ghosts. There is the occasional rapport with friends house staff. A kindly cook played by Sean Harris and a dresser played by Sally Hawkins are basically the only good companionship Diana has outside of her family. Still there is a cloud that hangs over the whole thing. The first thing we hear Diana say is, “where the fuck am I?” and it’s a sentiment that hangs heavily over the whole film. This is a person that is lost, and who unfortunately will never make her way out of the fog. No matter how hard she tries Diana is tragically doomed. Such is the fate of those in history.