The nuanced performance of Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, the psychological interpretation of Director Pablo Larraín, and the mystery of what happens behind closed doors are exactly why the film medium was created in the first place: These components call for a multi-sensory experience of what could be safely read but valued more when felt.
Documented history in school textbooks is one thing; historical fiction is a human thing. Did a seven-year-old Diana Spencer really clothe a scarecrow with her father’s tattered hunting jacket? Probably not. But, when we observe Diana longing for her father’s company when she revisits the scarecrow as a lonely, suppressed adult, we draw closer to her.
Spencer takes place in 1991 at the queen’s Sandringham county estate, roughly one year before Diana and Prince Charles formally separate. This cinematically conceived Princess Diana is consumed by a superficially luxurious lifestyle and a coldness of in-law pressure, forced tradition (weighing yourself before and after the Christmas feast), a suffocating necklace of pearls, and sealed window shades to avoid any paparazzi photographs. Essentially, the estate is a claustrophobic, Kubrickian prison in which Diana can only seek refuge in her two sons, William and Harry.
Pablo Larraín’s re-imagination of a three-day Christmas holiday gathering encapsulates the past, present, and future of the Princess Diana saga most of the world interpreted through pictures (much like Danny Boyle and Michael Fassbender’s interpretation of Steve Jobs during three pivotal product launches). In elementary school, I would see photos of Diana and Charles in my mom’s weekly People magazine subscriptions. “She doesn’t look happy,” was my foregone conclusion as a kid. Call it unfair or speculation – it was the world’s most obsessed perception.
Facts and documentation aside, Pablo Larraín successfully captures the spiritual liberation of Princess Diana with less a biopic lens and more an impressionistic brush stroke. Like Natalie Portman in Jackie (2016) Kristen Stewart is Larraín’s muse for painting expressions of sympathetic understanding. Like Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy, dissonant score, nothing is linear here. There is no resolution.
These are moments, visual vignettes, and nothing more. Yet, the whispers and tilted head of subtle despair say it all.
For Stewart’s masterful performance and Larraín’s companion camera, Spencer is worth a look at what possibly happened behind this iconic figure’s door.
**** out of *****