director: pablo larrain
Starring: kirsten stewart, timothy spall, sally hawkins, and sean harris
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana Spencer, struggling with mental health problems, decides to end her decade-long marriage to Prince Charles.
Spencer is a work of historical fiction - a fable from true events, to paraphrase the text the film opens with. This element of dramatic license the screenwriter (Steven Knight) and director (Pablo Larraín) grant themselves allows for a complex and at times profound exploration of a brief period in the life of Lady Diana Spencer.
Kristen Stewart gives an impressive performance as Diana, becoming unrecognisable; she’s subsumed into the character, bringing to life the personal struggles the Princess faced. The film takes the liberty of contextualizing these difficulties of the real-life Diana, within that of the story being told - set over a brief period of time: Christmas 1991 with the Royal Family.
This narrow focus serves to illustrate how tensions had been growing for some time, by examining the point at which they effectively came to a head and what this could have meant for the relationship between Diana and her then-husband Charles, Prince of Wales.
To say Spencer looks beautiful is a real understatement. The film has a softness of image, a stylistic choice possibly to corroborate the film’s claim to being a fable, though it also helps keep the feel of the film anchored to the early 90’s time period. Germany’s striking Nordkirchen Castle acts as the exterior of Sandringham House and is an incredible backdrop to the film. The costumes were provided by Chanel and they are like time capsules, exemplifying Diana’s style.
The supporting cast includes, amongst others: Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Sean Harris. These three wonderful character actors bring colour and interest to their roles, making full use of a script that provides their characters with depth and history. Their performances all serve to either challenge, encourage or comfort Stewart’s Diana, but each in a genuine, human way.
Spencer is a powerful and compelling take on a moment in Lady Diana’s life. Considered storytelling, combined with inspired production design and fascinating performances, results in Spencer being an essential watch, even for those with limited familiarity with the British Royals.