Will they kill me, do you think?Princess Diana (played by Kristen Stewart)
When Princess Diana died on August 31st, 1997, in a grizzly car crash with Dodi Fayed and her driver, Henri Paul, I was 20 months old. So, I never got to see Princess Diana’s charity work or any of the wonderful things she did while she was alive. It has been only since her death that I have picked up these details, either through my mom’s stories about watching her on television or through some cultural osmosis that I only recognized when I sat in front of my television to watch Pablo Larraìn’s Spencer.
When the film opens, we see the words “a fable from a true tragedy” pop up on screen before transitioning to British Royal Army soldiers arriving to prepare the Queen’s Sandringham Estate for the Royal Family’s visit. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this Larraìn’s way to get through to the viewer that he’s taking a different approach than many biopics, where the film is much more wrapped in feelings of grief, self-loathing, duty, and less about how cool this person was.
Those familiar with Larraìn’s biopic about Jackie Kennedy, Jackie, may already be on board for this type of character drama. Spencer is a film that captures the psyche of Diana Spencer, good and bad, but I fear to those looking for a straight-on biopic, as the level of tension & pressure that permeates every aspect of the film on and offscreen might be too much for them to handle.
The thing is, Diana, there has to be two of you. There’s, there’s two of me, there’s two of father, two of everyone. There’s the real one and the one they take pictures of. You have to be able to make your body do things you hate.Prince Charles (played by Jack Farthing)
Larraìn certainly leans into his strengths here. Even though I didn’t like Jackie, I appreciated Larraìn’s attention to detail on what mattered most to these women: their lives away from their husbands and how they responded to the fame thrust upon them. Here, what he’s trying to do is recognize the background of Diana’s stay at the Sandringham Estate. It’s not one of joy. She’s not only physically separating herself from the Royal Family, but emotionally separating herself from the environment that seems so keen on destroying every bit of goodness she has left. That separation is messy, and Larraìn depicts how excruciatingly difficult that is for her and her two boys, who’ve only ever known the public-facing identity they have to put on to survive. Additionally, the motif of past, present, and future was an interesting position for a biopic to take, as most biopics focus on the life of the person rather than how one event can influence the world.
Larraìn certainly leans into his strengths here. Even though I didn’t like Jackie, I appreciated Larraìn’s attention to detail on what mattered most to these women: their lives away from their husbands, and how they responded to the fame thrust upon them. Here, what he’s trying to do is recognize the background of Diana’s stay at the Sandringham Estate. It’s not one of joy. She’s not only physically separating herself from the Royal Family, but emotionally separating herself from the environment that seems so keen on destroying every bit of goodness she has left. That separation is messy and Larraìn depicts how excruciatingly difficult that is for her and her two boys, who’ve only ever known the public-facing identity they have to put on to survive. Additionally, the motif of past, present, and future was an interesting position for a biopic to take, as most biopics focus on the life of the person rather than how one event can influence the world.
Stephen Knight’s screenplay (his fifth with Larraìn) demystifies the Royal Family as a normal family with big problems. Problems that Diana has to deal with in ways Knight conjures out of thin air. The screenplay isn’t his strongest, but his focus on internal struggles that we never got to see helps to illuminate the true tragedy of Diana’s life as she begins to separate herself from the Royal Family is nothing short of magical.
The chicken laid the eggs, the fishermen caught the fish, the bees made the honey. They all made such an effort to bring you breakfast. Please do them the courtesy of not regurgitating it all into a lavatory bowl before the church bells even ring.Prince Charles (played by Jack Farthing)
Alright, I’ve held off long enough. Kristen Stewart embodies Diana, pure and simple. Adopting Diana’s voice and mannerisms, Stewart gives the performance of her career here. Her Diana is in constant turmoil, and we see every bit of it as the camera gets in her face as she’s breaking down in front of our eyes. Not enough could be said about her performance. A Best Actress nomination is in the cards for sure.
As for the rest of the cast, the only cast members that made an impact for me were Jack Farthing as Prince Charles, Timothy Spall as Major Alistar Gregory, and Sean Harris as Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady. I would have put Sally Hawkins down here as well, but she’s not in the film enough to make an impact for me.
Farthing gets one of the best scenes in the film, where Charles and Diana are arguing about a holiday activity Diana doesn’t want her boys to participate in, but Charles does. There’s no score to the scene, it’s just Farthing and Stewart debating with each other, but as most scenes in the film, it’s not just about the boys or this specific holiday. For them both, it’s about much more. Without revealing too much, Charles is trying to make a larger point about Diana’s behavior, while Diana is trying to make Charles look at the bigger picture.
I watch, so that others do not see.Major Alistar Gregory (played by Timothy Spall)
One cast member that’s all about the bigger picture is Spall’s character, Major Alistar Gregory. He’s not in the film much, but when he appears, he always has a nugget of information for Diana to think about, like the above quote. Initially, when he appeared, I feared he was going to be the “bad guy” of the biopic, but, and this in no means a spoiler, the film, he exists as Spall does in about every film, to be the skeevy guy you’re not too sure about. So in that way, his presence is always felt and looms over Diana just as much as the sign above the kitchen stove, “Keep noise to a minimum. They can hear you.”
I don’t listen. I just cook.Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady (played by Sean Harris)
Someone who doesn’t get a ton of screen time but makes an impact is Harris’ character, Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady. Like Major Alistar Gregory, his presence looms over Diana, but in a different way. Instead of being this watchful eye, Darren is much more of a confidant to Diana, someone she can come to if no one else will listen. Darren on his own, though, is just as interesting. He’s one of the first characters to arrive at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, saying simply “Once more unto the breach” before getting back to work. He’s a man of few words, preferring to cook rather than get wrapped up in the mess of the Royal Family. Harris’ performance may be understated, but he’s one of the best parts of the film.
Likewise, Claire Mathon’s cinematography is the best I’ve seen in years. The composition of each shot feels meticulously framed. Each frame feels like an encroachment of space, whether it’s a wide shot, medium shot, or an extreme closeup, taking the viewer deeper and deeper into Diana’s psyche. If she doesn’t get any awards for her cinematography, I’ll be astonished.
Furthermore, I can’t exactly describe what’s being done in the color grading process other than to say that it takes on this overexposed, painterly color not dissimilar to the kind of something you would see in a Renaissance-era painting.
In that sense, congratulations are due for Guy Hendrix Dyas, the production designer who also designed the sets, if I’m not mistaken. Somehow, he has managed to create a version of Sandringham Estate that still registers as the real estate but has its own version of depicting the Royal Family’s extreme opulence. Lock this one down for an Oscar nomination now.
Another category that is for sure to get a nomination at the Oscars or otherwise are the costumes designed by Jacqueline Durran. She has a way of making Diana look out of place amongst the Royal Family with how vibrant her wardrobe is compared to the monarchy’s drab wardrobe. It’s yet another way the film emphasizes just how much Diana is out of place in this family without saying a word.
Jonny Greenwood’s score, combined with Yves Marie Omnes’s sound, are the final pieces in the puzzle. Greenwood creates a truly oppressive score, with a mix of jazz and classical music illustrating the distance between the Royals and Diana. Both Greenwood’s and Omnes’s work comes to a head in a truly horrifying dinner scene with the deafening sound of twinkling spoons as the score creates a fight or flight response with violins and cellos increasing in tempo and intensity until finally getting breathing room some ten minutes later.
Spencer is by far the best biopic I’ve seen this year. Larraín’s impeccable direction, supported by a fantastic crew of talented folks and stellar acting by Stewart and company, are sure to get the film many awards this year. So if you only see one film this year, make it Spencer.
Until next time!