Stylized, suspenseful ‘Spencer’ ravishes the people’s princess

Photo of the film Spencer
Komplizen Film/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

The problem with “Spencer,” the new Princess Diana biopic, is evident right from the start: “A fable from a true tragedy.” That’s not really a problem, however; it’s a license for creative liberty. A wonderful one too — except when a filmmaker like Pablo Larraín prioritizes craft over care in exploring the ideas his film tangos with. 

In general, “Spencer” is terrific. It’s a psychological thriller of Royal proportions, where butlers are cogs in the Crown’s very insidious, very trapping, very claustrophobic palace. It’s a horror film where the word apparatus has all the connotations of a cabal, neither of which Larraín needs to voice when his film so effectively constructs relays of gazes and power, tensions that box Kristen Stewart’s Diana further and further into a corner. 

Yet, it’s also a story, and narrative is where Larraín struggles. There is a true history to the events behind the film, which is set over a Christmas weekend, likely the 1991 season before Diana dumped Prince Charles, played by a chilling Jack Farthing. The only love in the air is for fashion. Larraín loves to be stylish: Stewart gives ripped jeans the pristine air of a brand new hardcover book, and Larraín enjoys hearing the crinkle of the spine as he leafs through Diana’s pages.

Larraín is, in form, a stylist. Nothing spills out of his film; it’s all there, stitched together. Our eyes are locked on Diana as she takes her seat for Christmas Eve dinner. She’s wearing the same set of pearls Charles gave to his mistress. Diana knows she’s being used, but feels helpless to stop the bloodsuckers. She looks to the Queen, a vampiric Stella Gonet. Steel and conspiracy looks back — a look hungry for her vitality. She looks to Charles. Contempt bores down on her. Cuts back and forth and back. She yanks the pearls from her neck, some of which land in her soup. Frustrated, she eats one whole, then excuses herself to regurgitate it.

“Spencer” should go further from there. Instead, the film slides into a rut of abject helplessness. A beautiful rut — like the stolen masterwork-lined halls that Stewart storms up and down so well in Chanel — but a rut nonetheless. It’s a canal of auteurial sludge uniquely incapable of imagining personhood beyond the parts that create cinematic tension. Diana descends into disorder, and Laura Mulvey’s distinction between pleasure and desire comes to mind. 

Pleasure keeps us happy and docile; desire gets us wanting change. Larraín straddles both. He produces desire, but only regarding the monarchy. The rest of the time, he’s a remarkably Hollywood filmmaker. Even in his international features, he wields technical know-how that produces suspense, while his narratives lead to concise and weak endings. 

It’s the same story in “Spencer.” Larraín layers tension, creating a sumptuous, sarcophagal and sometimes salacious film. His film traps Diana; one scene finds her curtains sewn shut, which she shears open. But when it comes to Diana’s interiority, “Spencer” lazily suggests public self-acceptance as a metric for bravery and a deterrent to harming, an idea that drops mere minutes later. 

In “Jackie,” Larraín was far too eager to show off a brain blown to bits. In “Spencer,” he goes the other way, fleeing from a confrontation with tragedy. Ending with Diana’s death would’ve forced Larraín to contend with his film’s messages. While it would have made a vastly different film, it would be one committed to answering questions — on sexuality, on mental health, on person. Larraín is one of few filmmakers that can spin attention so well, but he is not one that can stitch together complex characters in a three-day narrative.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].