Anyone who dismisses Pablo Larrain’s new film for it’s factual or historical inaccuracy needs to be banned from cinema. For they have missed the crucial purpose and obligation that cinema has to truth and, worse, has demonstrated a fundamental lack of imagination. If cinema were bound to a dreary recounting of verifiable facts, it would deny one of the most important roles of film-making. Because far more important than being factual, is being authentic.
Spencer sees Lady Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart) visit Sandringham Palace over Christmas. Set from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, the film explores Diana’s tenuous relationship with the royal family and the pressure placed upon her to conform to a system she finds bloodless and horrifying. At the heart of her struggle is the battle for the souls of her sons. With obligation and duty beckoning, Diana struggles with who she really is.
To understand the film better, it’s important to consider what Diana actually meant to the British People. Writer, Steven Knight, said he was attracted to the project because when Diana died he saw British people behaving like not-British People and wondered why. The film suggests that Diana represented a challenge to the status quo. Though she lived in a large house, dramatically relocated to just outside the palace, she is portrayed as being far more down-to-earth and resistant to the bizarre rituals that stem from unchecked privilege. A crucial aspect of this struggle is the family’s insistence that the boys go hunting, and Diana’s eagerness to prevent them becoming part of a cruel cycle of predator and prey that sees the royals needlessly feeding on the helpless.
The film isn’t even in the style of a biopic. It’s a character-driven, gothic horror reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. It’s ominous and abstract and entirely interested in exploring anxiety and internalised oppression. Diana is portrayed as self-harming and suffering from an eating disorder. The sheer lack of humanity that surrounds her squeezes the life from her. Larrain’s camera traps her in endless hallways and coldly beautiful rooms. She’s stalked and watched at every corner by servants of the old order that seem to be able to read her mind. The decaying ruins of her family home just outside of the grounds manifest her crumbling sense of identity.
Much shall be made of Kristen Stewart’s performance. Representing a real break from her typical performance but loaded with her trademark fragility, she offers a pained and believable manifestation of Lady Di. If the accent occasionally falters or the mannerisms lapse into caricature now and then it absolutely does not break the spell. If anything Stewart’s unusual casting further distance the character from her surroundings, encapsulating the disconnect between the awkward and uncomfortable woman and the hollow glamour that seeks to consume her.
This is a horror film about a mother trying to rescue her children from a family of ancient vampires. It’s a deeply resonant fairy tale about the British reaction to the death of it’s Princess. The battle of tradition vs freedom continues in the British psyche and dominated much of the discussion around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s departure from the royal family last year. Spencer speaks of a moment when Britain mourned a spirit who perhaps encapsulated the potential for change. A change the British People sorely desired. Larraine, Knight and Stewart have created a masterly work of authenticity.