Sarah Lewis’s review of Spencer considers the cinematic portrayal of Princess Diana’s inner complexities and struggles
Content Warning: Self-harm, eating disorders and suicide
Kristen Stewart stars as Princess Diana in Spencer, a revision of the story of Lady Diana boldly crafted by director Pablo Larraín. More psychological drama than a historical biopic, Spencer is a dark and intense depiction of the latter stages of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. Set at the Sandringham estate from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, the film’s three-day time frame creates a claustrophobic set-up, as Diana struggles to make it through the festive period with her royal in-laws. As the critically acclaimed director of Jackie (2016), Larraín has tackled historical material before, but here fact is secondary to the dramatised mental state of Diana. She is shown to be slipping into a depressive psychosis whilst struggling with an aggressive eating disorder.
The intense creative choices made to represent her psyche may come as a surprise to viewers, who may have expected a more plot-heavy narrative, perhaps in the style of The Crown. Most notably, a pearl necklace becomes a sinister focal point, which Diana explains was given as a gift from Charles, who also gave the same necklace to Camilla Parker Bowles, the infamous ‘other woman’. As she sits down to dinner, Diana imagines crunching on one of the pearl beads, which she lets fall in her soup. It is later torn from her neck in a moment of freedom.
Compared to other films and adaptations that have drawn on the Diana story, such as Helen Mirren’s The Queen (2006), Spencer positions Diana directly at the centre of the plot, letting almost every other character dissolve into the background. The extended royal family are reduced to props, mostly silent at dinner whilst Diana experiences her mental turmoil. Even the Queen only has one real line, before disappearing into the grounds with her dogs. Much of the remaining screen time is given to staff, especially Diana’s chief dresser, Maggie. Some attention is given to Charles, as a scowling visual reminder of their failing marriage. But most compellingly, much of Diana’s dialogue takes place between her and her children, where a young Harry and William take centre stage. The emphasis is on Diana as mother as she strives for a warm family life in contrast to the cold traditions of a royal Christmas. For instance, she secretly gives the boys presents to open on Christmas Day, subverting the traditional Christmas Eve gift giving.
Diana revisits happy memories of childhood throughout her stay at Sandringham, beginning as she glimpses the abandoned neighbouring estate Park House where she grew up. Despite being coined ‘the people’s princess’, this seeks to remind audiences Diana really isn’t one of the people. Abandoned and decaying as it is, it is clear the Spencer family is one accustomed to grandeur. And whilst a capability for suffering isn’t reduced by great wealth and privilege, seeing Diana rudely address less favoured staff, and in one case misname a servant, does create a slight tension for the viewer to navigate. At one point, as she reaches breaking point in her ensuite bathroom, I couldn’t help noticing just how nice the shower was. I’m deliberately missing the point here, in that despite the luxury, Sandringham house remained a cold and unhappy place for Diana where she wasn’t made welcome. And in many ways the Diana story has always been a palpably anti-royalist one. In light of this, to view the film as a dramatisation, and not a directly historical representation of Royal dynamics, is probably for the best.
Creative liberties are boldly taken throughout the film, not least of all with dresser Maggie’s confession of love to Diana, designed to cheer her up after a particularly aggressive depressive spell. But the most effective and surreal element comes in the acute presentations of Diana’s troubled mind. She is shown to be reading a history of Anne Boleyn, which inspires the mystical appearance of a historically dressed Boleyn, visible only to her. Boleyn materialises sometimes with the face of Diana, or Stewart, and often at times of heightened crisis. At one point the ghostly figure prevents Diana from throwing herself down a flight of stairs in Park House. This symbolic royal figure was, like Diana, also famed for her grisly end and her unfaithful husband, and was notably vilified within the walls of the royal court. The film’s symbolic power is strong from the start, with an early shot of roadkill, a pheasant belonging to the Sandringham grounds, casting an ominous shadow over the festive proceedings.
As documented in The Crown, Diana’s eating disorder is also a major focus, a sombre counterpoint to the elaborate food preparations taking place over the Christmas period. This is paired with moments of graphic self-harm and threats of suicide, which are well-handled within the film’s tight timeframe and domestic setting.
Undoubtedly Kristen Stewart makes the film the success that it is, transformed and almost unrecognisable with Diana’s trademark hair and clothes. We are with her throughout as a viewer, in her mind and her bedroom, whilst the rest of the royal family is downstairs, two courses into their eight-course feast. By its conclusion, Spencer succeeds in representing an internal struggle in a bold, sometimes scary fashion. The result is a moving and highly impactful representation of a now much mythologised historical narrative, with a lonely woman at its centre, who is merely trying to survive.
Artwork by Amelia Elson.