Movie Review: Spencer

Twenty-four years after the tragic death of Diana, the public’s fascination with the People’s Princess hasn’t abated.  A few months ago, we had the “Springtime for Hitler”-like DIANA: THE MUSICAL.  Now we have SPENCER, a psychological thriller of sorts that some viewers may find equally head-scratching.

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (JACKIE, NERUDA) continues his examination of tragic public figures here.  Written by Stephen Knight (THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB; TV’s PEAKY BLINDERS), SPENCER looks at just three days in the princess’ life – Christmas with the Royals at Sandringham in 1991.  It was the time when Charles and Diana were living separate lives, though not yet officially separated, and the state of both their marriage and the British monarchy was daily fodder for the UK tabloids.  We now know, thanks to Andrew Morton’s 1992 book and Diana’s ill-advised interview with Martin Bashir in 1995, that this was a period of time in her short life when she was bulimic and was even cutting herself.  While many Royals and the staff knew of her profound sadness and inner turmoil, to the outside world, Diana was all smiles.  SPENCER postulates that Diana was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, hallucinating and looking for any opportunity she could grab to break free of her gilded cage.

With the exception of her sons, William and Harry (played by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, respectively) and a brief conversation with Charles (Jack Farthing, OFFICIAL SECRETS; TV’s POLDARK), Diana has very little interaction with the rest of the Royals.  Instead, here she talks to Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall, DENIAL; MR. TURNER), who is responsible for maintaining and protecting the Royals’ image during the holiday, Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT; ’71), and her former dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins, THE SHAPE OF WATER; the PADDINGTON films), who is her closest confidante and one who seems to understand the princess best.  These interactions serve to reinforce the generally-held belief that Diana was much more of-the-people than her in-laws.  (Of the three characters, only McGrady is a real person.  The others are fictional though probably based on real people.  Maggie may have taken inspiration from Fay Appleby, who was Diana’s dresser for many years.)

Kristen Stewart (HAPPIEST SEASON; UNDERWATER) may seem like a strange choice to play not just a Brit but this Brit, but she rises to the occasion and delivers a reasonably good performance.  Though she often sounds like a breathless Diana, she does an acceptable British accent, and she nails all of Diana’s signature head tilts and side eyes.  Compared to Jeanna de Waal, who plays Diana in the Broadway musical, she’s positively fabulous but that’s really an unfair comparison.  There has been much Oscar buzz surrounding her performance.  I don’t expect to hear her name when the Best Actress nominees are announced but as she’s already received Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice and Hollywood Critics award nominations, I could be proven wrong.

While SPENCER is an interesting take on a subject that we all think we know so much about, one has to ask, “Why?”  Do we really need to see a film that shows Diana at her worst?  Will it make anyone reassess their opinion of her?  No.  Will it make anyone feel sorry for Charles and the rest of the Royals?  Definitely no.  So why make a film like this?  It’s great that Larraín can make the kind of films he wants to make but some stories might best be left untold.

SPENCER opens in Hong Kong on Thursday (December 23rd).  With any luck, this will be the last film about Diana that we’ll have to endure.

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