Larrain: Spencer (2021) | featured image
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer (2021) | courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

Venice 2021: ‘Spencer’ Is a Majestic Arthouse Farce that Keeps Its Distance

Kristen Stewart embodies the distraught Lady Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, an audacious chamber piece that fetishizes the woman it seeks to liberate.

Pablo Larraín
September 2021 | Venice International Film Festival

“Where the fuck am I?” is one of the first lines an exasperated Diana delivers in her squeaky Received Pronunciation (RP) singsong decrescendo, performing an anxious heel turn in a dingy joint somewhere in Norfolk. She is by herself, driving, on the way to a Christmas weekend at Sandringham, an obnoxiously vast country retreat of “four generations of royals” taking up 20,000 acres of East England lands. The estate is known as the home of “some of the finest shoots in England, and is used for the royal shooting parties”. This Christmas weekend is no different, as we’re led to believe from the first moment of this bold and uncompromising film that the Crown is out to get Diana as well. 

Chile’s Pablo Larraín is a master of character study and films that are wholly centered around their protagonists’ inner turmoil. Even before his seminal Jackie with Natalie Portman (2016), he shone as the grand inquisitor of the human psyche in his “unintentional Pinochet trilogy”, 2008’s Tony Monero, 2010’s Post Mortem (which premiered in Venice that year), and 2012’s No. All three were lauded as bizarre yet fascinating portraits of individuals at odds with their surroundings, and Spencer follows in the same vein. 

Coupled with veteran screenwriter Steven Knight of the Peaky Blinders (2013) and Eastern Promises (2007) fame, Larraín commands the eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere seamlessly, while Knight delivers snappy dialogue and tongue-in-cheek innuendo. The entirety of Spencer takes place over three Christmas days at Sandringham: the narrative revolves wholly about Diana, her final unraveling under the weight of her marriage to unfaithful Charles, and, more importantly, her being chained to the minutiae of the Queen and the royal family.

Kristen Stewart might not have seemed like the obvious choice for the exceedingly fragile, distraught Princess of Wales, but she excels in the role, disappearing without a trace into Diana’s extreme anxieties and existential dread. Her mannerisms and vocal delivery are near-perfect, and through her bold and at times campy performance we see in Diana a woman completely broken, incapable of feeling much more than fear and anguish.

Apart from Stewart, nary a handful of characters get any dialogue; Sally Hawkins is kind and human as aide Maggie, Sean Harris rational and concerned as Chef Darren, and Timothy Spall chilling as Major Gregory. The likes of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth are nothing more than symbols (of oppression), getting a few snarky lines each. Even Princes William and Harry are there just to remind us of the limits of Diana’s life – if her despicable husband and tyrannical mother-in-law are closing in on her for their own gain, her sons are also, in a sense, boundaries, albeit those of love and belonging. 

The entirety of the 111-minute runtime is an airless chamber piece made up of strings of near-surreal vignettes, in which we see Diana aimlessly roaming the Sandringham estate (Schloss Marquardt in Potsdam was a fitting stand-in). Scene after spooky scene, she tries to escape herself and her life, be it through overeating, self-harm, refurbishment of her late father’s coat she found on a scarecrow, or literal hallucinations of Anne Boleyn, with whom Diana compares herself.

The mostly disjointed vignettes work, to a degree, because of Knight’s biting dialogue, Stewart’s intense, frivolous performance, and most of all Larraín’s daring direction; he stages Spencer as an arthouse horror, a thriller even, in which one never really knows what they are looking at. Similar to Amenábar’s The Others (2001) or even Galvin’s The Turn of the Screw (2020), Spencer, too, reads like a suspense drama of make-believe. When Major Gregory or Chef Darren trail Diana around the estate, for example, one is never sure if they themselves are more than mere apparitions. In one scene, Diana even hallucinates seeing Maggie, who was allegedly removed because of “whispers”, though nothing compares to her dreams of Anne Boleyn and the escalating paranoia that she might end up with the same fate as Henry VIII’s second wife. 

The scenography deliberately adds to the panic. The opening scene features military tanks rolling into the estate, while Diana’s solemn solitude turns into horror with Sandringham walls constantly closing in on her, at times literally leaving her stitched up behind the curtains of her own room. Apart from the tongue-in-cheek ending and one tender scene with Sally Hawkins, there are practically no pleasant moments in this film, each frame only pointing back to the crumbling life of this young woman who is overburdened by the duties of being a royal. –

This Diana – vamped and camped up, but still, the English rose the people loved – is instantly recognizable but utterly unrelatable, despite her issues being (at least partly) very common. The set pieces are marvelous and the allegories are rich, but both Larraín and Knight occasionally stumble with the story and the humanity that should be behind it.

A woman struggling with rampant infidelity, bulimia, self-harm, and familial abuse should be, lamentably, instantly accessible. Instead, we get an entirely detached piece, marvelous in its symbolism and appearance, but lacking in engaging drama. For nearly two hours, Diana sighs or panics, trying to escape her circumstances and even her body; each line of conversation we hear – intimidating or sympathetic – is there only to allude to her sad fate. Nothing uttered helps viewers get to know her.

Some of the sketches are even wistfully trivial: there is a poorly written scene with the Queen (Stella Gonnet), in which the scolding elder scoffs at Diana, reminding her she is nothing but a currency, and most of the scenes with Spall (great as always) feature stunted conversations, produced entirely of curt platitudes. Banal as it may sound, nothing apart from these vignettes happens in the film, so one would expect them to be uniformly heartfelt and engrossing to carry the story. Sadly, they don’t always hit the mark. 

The disjointed narrative still leaves plenty of room to marvel at the staccato of imagery and soundbites, but this carelessly fetishistic approach also somewhat derails the film. While we are constantly reminded of the monstrosity of being entrapped by the Crown and reduced to a publicity stunt, wherein one is, at best, a handy tool, we see Diana as a legitimately distressed celebrity, but rarely a woman, a person.

By amplifying the aesthetics, Larraín does right by his actors, and the (horrifying) beauty of the muted chamber piece screaming silently for air betrays the complex humanity behind this legendary woman’s suffering. Indeed, the Diana before us is pigeonholed into being a bewildering spectacle yet again. While this might be an ironic move by design, Spencer still leaves the viewer cold in spite of Diana’s cries. After all, this is at its core a film about a woman broken by an unhappy marriage and a despicable family, who is trying to get her life back. However, it reads as little more than a sardonic sneer at the dangers of celebrity. 

Moreover, there is the very inconvenient and most often avoided topic of Diana actually being born into nobility, which, while made clear, is not explored here. The Spencers are an aristocratic family founded in the 15th century. One Winston Churchill was a descendant of the dynasty. Lady Diana grew up with as much prestige and money one could imagine; after all, the house she was raised in was rented to her family by Queen Elizabeth II herself.

This intriguing and charming woman –the only royal bride to have had a paid job before getting married at the young age of 20 – was neither stupid nor an ingenue. That she was betrayed by her husband and let down by her in-laws is absolutely shameful, but the film plays at her “shock” that the paparazzi are chasing her and that the royal squires expect a certain (albeit morbid) order when dinner for 20 is served.

Both as a noblewoman by birth and an obscenely wealthy celebrity, Diana knew of the etiquette even before she became the Princess of Wales. What the Windsors have done to her toward the end of her misbegotten marriage with Charles is a travesty, but it was no surprise to anyone, and the film diminishes her as a personality by insisting on her apparent outrage at every single court rule in the known universe. 

Spencer looks and feels unnervingly marvelous and genre-bending, maintaining a balance between playful and horrific. It provides some scathing, insightful commentary, but raises very few questions and misses point-blank opportunities to dig deeper and explore the psyche behind the tortured facade. Stewart will no doubt be a formidable candidate for this year’s awards season and Larraín might very well get some nods too – and not undeservedly. It’s just a shame that viewers won’t learn anything new from the film.