They eat the best foods but take no joy in dining. Surrounded by grandeur, they have become exemplars of stifling insularity. A funereal solemnity embraces them, suggesting a form of social rigor mortis.
These are the royals of director Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, a look at three days in the life of Princess Diana. Early on, the princess (Kristen Stewart) gets lost driving a small green sports car to Sandringham House, a mansion where the royal family plans to celebrate the Christmas holiday. With these royals, celebration plays more like commemoration.
Larraín directed Jackie, a meditative 2016 movie about Jacqueline Kennedy. Larrain's fascination with the interior lives of iconic women pushes realism aside. Larrain introduces Spencer as “a fable from a true tragedy.”
No surprise, then, that Spencer becomes an increasingly subjective chronicle of how Diana experiences the holiday with Stewart fully committing to the task of playing a woman desperate to reclaim her life.
As Diana, Stewart talks in breathy gasps that, for me, evoked memories of Marlyn Monroe, another women locked in the gilded cage of expectation. Aside from her wardrobe and blonde hair, little attempt has been made to make Stewart look like Diana, a move that wisely diverts attention from the external to the internal.
During three days at Sandringham, Diana is drawn to her old home, a now-deteriorating mansion not far from the royal estate.
The point, like many in Steven Knight's screenplay, becomes obvious: Diana longs to retrieve the self that she's supposed to sacrifice on the altar of aristocratic duty.
For Diana, everything is double-edged. Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) gives her a pearl necklace. The gift puts Diana in a suffocating chokehold that evokes comparisons to Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII who lost her head. Diana reads a book about Boleyn and even hallucinates conversations with Henry’s unfortunate second wife.
The screenplay makes only one fleeting reference to Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’s true love, but the point is clear.
We wonder whether Diana might have endured the burden of scripted confinement had Charles been an emotional partner rather than someone who, at least in this movie, pushes his wife to accept a divided self.
Diana's supposed to project the royal image while realizing that her public posture never will fully accommodate her buoyant personality. She must train her body to do things she hates.
The rest of the characters reinforce the instructions Charles delivers to Diana as the couple stands on opposite sides of a large billiard table, another expression of Diana's terrible isolation.
Timothy Spall portrays Major Alistar Gregory, whose sole duty involves protecting royals from prying eyes. His face molded into an impressive scowl, Spall talks softly but makes no attempt to conceal Gregory's authority.
Jonny Greenwood, cinema's most original composer, creates an unsettling jazz soundtrack that drapes over the movie like a shroud and, at times, makes Spencer feel like an exercise in horror.
The score also underlines the impression that Spencer is driven, at least in part, by Larrain’s affinity for disharmonious notes. It also mirrors what's going on inside Diana's head.
The approach is not without costs, the primary one being a sense of airlessness. From the opening, the message already seems clear: Life's being drained from this young woman. In a sense, nothing remains but for Larraín to tighten the vice grip of propriety around Diana's delicate neck.
Because Spencer has a gloomy undertow, an aura of unreality pervades the movie. In works such as Netflix’s enormously popular The Crown, royals don’t always seem like figures borrowed from a wax museum. Not here.
Only Maggie (Sally Hawkins), Diana’s dresser, sees the princess as a human being and Charles sends her away, depriving Diana of even momentary possibilities for intimacy.
Diana suffered from bulimia and Larraín uses her malady metaphorically, a dubious choice, I think. She can’t stomach the royal food that nourishes so much rigid conformity. When her liberating break-out arrives at the film’s end, she takes her sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Apparently, she’s willing to give up a seat at the royal table to consume the food of the people.
Larrain uses his considerable skills to create a change-resistant world in which, as someone puts it, there can be no past or future, only a ceremonial sameness. I guess that makes Spencer a sophisticated movie with a simple point: No one should be expected to endure the horrors of so much suffocating isolation.