Released: 20th January
Seen: 14th February
Telling the story of the life of Princess Diana is never going to be easy, in part because she was one of the most well documented human beings in history thanks to the paparazzi who were ultimately implicated in her death but also because her story is ultimately one of utter tragedy, she’s a Disney Princess who was overwhelmed by the harsh reality and eventually torn down by the very glamorous lifestyle that nobility promised.
It’s a story that people have tried to tell many times, even just last year with the epic disaster musical Diana but now we have a new take on her story in Spencer and while this version does give us a little more of an idea about what it was like to be Diana Frances Spencer, it only does that because it’s been blessed with a perfect lead performance that can weather any misstep along the way.
Spencer smartly takes place over Christmas in 1991 where Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is just trying to make it through a couple of days under the strict regime expected of her as a royal. The stress of trying to handle all the assorted restrictions and expectations has driven her to develop a severe case of bulimia and just generally impacted her mental health, to the point where she has flat out started to hallucinate. As the three day holiday festivities continue, we slowly see not only the cracks in Princess Diana’s sanity, but in her marriage and how she is treated by the royal family.
Focusing on a brief period of Diana’s life allows Spencer to avoid some of the more sensational elements of her story and focus on the person. This might honestly be one of the more intimate portrayals of Diana since we’re not just focusing on the image that she was forced to present to the public but on what presenting that image actually did to her mental health, a bold choice that really gives the film some serious gravitas that it manages to carry over the clunky moments, which are many.
Spencer‘s repeated attempt to compare Diana to Anne Boleyn was certainly a choice (I mean, comparing a woman most famous for being beheaded to a woman whose death is one of the most famous things about her is certainly questionable) as was the repeated hallucinations, it felt more like they were trying to make Diana’s story more dramatic, which you really don’t need considering everything else that went on.
The moments where Anne Boleyn literally appears to Diana as a vision of her future are kind of silly, it’s obviously there because you can do that in films but it just feels like a bad writing choice… and then I learned that the guy who wrote this also wrote Serenity and Locked Up, so I’m just kind of stunned the script was anything beyond serviceable.
The undeniable truth is that Spencer only works as well as it does (Which is to say, extremely goddamn well) because it puts all of the burdens of being good onto the lead actress and it turns out that Kristen Stewart is and has always been a goddamn fine actress and if you actually give her something to work with, she can do magic. There is a good goddamn reason why Kristen is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar this year because she just decided to become Princess Diana and made every strange little choice of the script and director work.
Sure the rest of the cast is fine, particularly Timothy Spall as one of the people constantly making Diana’s life utter shit but if we’re being honest, they could’ve all been hat stands for all I care, the film is entirely about Kristen Stewart and her glorious display of talent that hopefully now people will see. Maybe we can stop calling her “That girl from Twilight” and call her “That woman who deserved a fucking Oscar in 2022”… deserved can be replaced with “Won” if the ceremony goes well.
Without Kristen just carrying Spencer on her shoulders (get this woman a seat, she’s exhausted!) the film just wouldn’t work. Some of the dialogue is so on the nose that in less deft hands it could elicit a series of groans loud enough to overpower the score that seems to be daring you to get annoyed at its bombastic interruptions. Without Kristen, this film would barely be above midday TV movie levels and even then it wouldn’t be a particularly good one but with Kristen at the helm, this film soars well beyond what it should do.
Spencer might be heavily flawed, but a leading actress has never done so much to repair the flaws in a film just by her very presence. It is my most sincere hope that in a month she will be awarded for her fantastic work… and also my hope that this is the last time I see a Princess Diana film in my lifetime, the woman has been dead for 25 years now so can we maybe just let her rest?