When we first meet Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana, she is running late to spend the Christmas holiday with other members of the royal family at Sandringham House, one of Queen Elizabeth’s sprawling country estates. She is desperate and harried as she drives aimlessly through the countryside, her frustration mounting when she can’t seem to find her destination. Discordant notes and flourishes, which characterize the film’s score, heighten the moment’s anxiety, thereby drawing the viewer into concert with Diana’s inner turmoil.
It will not escape the notice of the attentive viewer that the story of Diana chosen to be told by the filmmakers is that of the events surrounding the royals’ Christmas holiday in 1991. Sandringham House lies in close proximity to Park House, the abandoned neighboring estate which was Diana’s childhood home. Periodic flashbacks return Diana to that idyllic past, one which remains for her devastatingly out of reach.
Stewart’s Diana is a luminous and haunted creature, much like she was in real life. She is surrounded by the ghosts of all the lives she is not allowed to live and constrained by a future she can predict with startling accuracy. Throughout the course of the film, she is made at every turn to feel like she’s dancing on the knife edge of sanity, but to the working class viewer Diana appears to be the only sane one in the group of royals. I mean, how hard should it be to get someone to turn the heat on? And is it really asking too much to not want to be weighed before entering the hallowed premises like some Holstein cow at a livestock auction?
To a far lesser degree, I feel as if I understand Diana’s plight. I know what it’s like to have seemingly everyone in the world wanting something from you that you feel ill-equipped to give, wanting nothing more for yourself than to be left alone. During one scene from the film, Diana is secretly eating when one of the Sandringham House caretakers accosts her and tells her that because of the recent media attention she’s attracted, she would do well to close her blinds while she changes clothes. It’s a little early to speculate, but if (and this is a big if) Stewart wins the Oscar for Best Actress, it will be in large part because of her retort, which I’m including below:
Their lenses are more like microscopes, really. And I’m the insect in the dish. See, they’re pulling my wings and my legs off one by one — making notes on how I react.
Princess Diana was one of the first women castigated on a truly global scale by the mass media. Every grain of her private life was excavated and inspected for its potential value. The scales at Sandringham House become a metaphor for Diana’s entire existence: At every turn she is weighed and found wanting until there is nothing left of her but the image and the simulacrum of the person she wants to be.
Whatever you want to call Spencer, it is not a biopic. It is a snapshot, a few pages torn from the diary of a life. It’s a deeply-felt character study of a woman flirting with the darkness in her own mind. There are parts of the film I wouldn’t hesitate to call Hitchcockian, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Stewart watched Kim Novak’s performance in Vertigo before filming a pivotal scene at the ruins of Park House.
All in all, Spencer is a delightfully stylish, if unsettling portrait of one of the most beloved, misunderstood, and mercurial figures of the twentieth century. Just give Stewart the freaking Oscar already.
Spencer was released on November 5th, 2021 and is now available to stream on YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Vudu.
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