I know the British Royal Family has never really left the global consciousness. At this point, it’s more or less their entire job to stay in the tabloids and keep everyone talking. (In many ways, they’re the OG celebrities who are famous simply for being famous.) But lately, it feels like the crowned heads of the United Kingdom have been especially ubiquitous. I expect this might have something to do with the perpetual family drama surrounding Princes William and Harry, in conjunction with the recent 20th anniversary of their mother’s tragically premature death in 1997.
Thus in 2017, the princes commissioned no less than two separate documentaries about the dearly departed Princess Diana. This is just about the same time when “The Crown” first debuted, dramatizing the life and times of reigning Queen Elizabeth II, featuring Emma Corrin in a Golden Globe-winning turn as a young Princess Di in season 4. (Elizabeth Debicki is set to play Adult Diana in the show’s upcoming final two seasons.)
And then of course we have “Diana: The Musical” (with Jeanna de Waal in the title role), a famously troubled production that had a limited workshop run in 2019 ahead of a 2020 debut that was cancelled due to COVID. The musical finally made its debut a month ago, after a filmed presentation dropped on Netflix and was roundly slammed as a new contender for the best worst musical of all time.
Oh, and there’s also Diana, the 2013 biopic in which Naomi Watts took a swing at the iconic role and walked away with a Razzie nomination. (That award went to Tyler Perry for that year’s Madea picture, so make of that what you will.) You probably forgot that happened, but it did.
Anyway, Spencer comes to us from producer/director Pablo Larrain. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably for the Jackie biopic starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Onassis Kennedy, which won zero Oscars out of three nominations. I might add that the film was written by Steven Knight, previously responsible for Locked Down (a charming yet failed experiment) and Serenity of 2019 (a cinematic crime against humanity). On top of all that, we’ve got Kristen Stewart (of all people!) playing Princess Diana during the royal Christmas festivities in December of 1991.
Put all of this together and what the hell did we get? Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure.
Right out the gate, the film opens with the royal kitchen staff (led by Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady, played by Sean Harris) getting all the food and materials in place with military precision, complete with armed guards sweeping the kitchen in advance. Cut to Princess Diana, lost in some country backwater, blankly staring at a map as she groans “Fuck am I?”
There’s a lot going on with this contrast. To start with, this is Princess Diana — the woman practically elevated to sainthood within our popular culture — and literally the very first word out of her mouth in this picture is an F-bomb. And it won’t be the last.
There are multiple scenes of Princess Diana puking her guts out into a toilet. She deliberately cuts herself at one point, in full unflinching view of the camera. The filmmakers stop just short of explicit nudity, but they toe right up to that line as close as they possibly can. At least two-thirds of this movie are comprised of mental breakdowns, in which Diana loses her temper, acts erratically, screams at her scene partner, and/or goes into a massive hallucinatory set piece.
The film emphasizes early and often that Diana is under immense pressure for her status as the (apparent) future queen of England. She’s stifled by so many archaic and meaningless traditions that it’s like she’s trapped in amber with the rest of the British Royal Family. To wit: The entire family is stuck together for a weekend in the lavish Sandringham Estate, but they have to go without heating in the middle of goddamn December because of some asinine tradition.
(Side note: The film was actually shot in Germany, with Nordkirchen Castle standing in for the exterior shots of the Sandringham Estate.)
Diana has all the most gorgeous dresses she could ever want, but she can’t choose which one she’s going to wear at a given time. She’s got handmaids to help dress her (Sally Hawkins plays Maggie, the royal dresser who also serves as Diana’s most trusted confidante), but the princess can’t choose her own assistants. She can go anywhere in the estate, so long as she sticks to the agenda that’s plotted out virtually every minute of the weekend. She’s got a wonderful bedroom, but the curtains have to stay closed at all times.
The paparazzi are always on her case, which terrifies the royalty into taking precautions against intrusive journalists, thus stifling Diana even further. Of course Prince Charles (here played by Jack Farthing) is no help, as he’s got his own family business to attend to and the both of them are well into their respective marital infidelities by this point.
(Side note: I don’t think either one of their side lovers are ever mentioned by name, but the filmmakers went very far out of their way to throw in a background cameo for Emma Darwall-Smith in the role of Camilla Parker Bowles.)
Speaking of which, Diana is prompted to ask the legitimate question as to why she’s the only one who has to be scared of the paparazzi. Why is it that Charles gets to screw around with his mistress without repercussions, while Diana gets chastised simply for leaving the curtains open while she gets dressed? Charles only answers that he’s smarter about keeping his indiscretions secret after living under the microscope to an extent that Diana never had to.
I might add that this portrayal of Diana has some exceedingly dire concerns that turn out to be oddly prescient in hindsight. She spends a great deal of time obsessing over Ann Boleyn (here played in hallucinatory visions by Amy Manson), who was in fact a distant relative of Diana Spencer. There are a great many uncanny connections between the two, but Diana is primarily focused on the fact that Henry VIII had his wife executed for marital infidelity when it was Henry himself having the affair. It hasn’t escaped Diana’s attention that she’s a similarly convenient scapegoat for the royal family’s troubles.
Pheasants are another neat motif sprinkled throughout the film. Birds who were bred specifically to be hunted by royalty for sport. The birds that get shot are scavenged for their meat and the remains are disposed of without ceremony. The birds that don’t get shot will likely die from running into nearby traffic, as they’re notoriously stupid.
Beautiful yet stupid. They exist solely for the entertainment and sustenance of the wealthy royals, who literally kill them, chew them up, and spit them out just to move on to the next bird. Again, Diana sees some unsettling parallels with herself.
So what’s keeping Diana from up and running? Well, it’s made explicitly clear that Diana is a devoted mother (William and Harry are here respectively played by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry), and Diana’s apparently made it her mission in life to try and give them as well-balanced an upbringing as might be possible under the circumstances. Indeed, Diana’s scenes with her two sons are among the most endearing and genuinely heartfelt in the entire film.
More importantly, there’s the fact that Park House — Diana’s own former childhood home — is the neighboring estate. It may be boarded-up and breaking down, but it’s still a remnant of Diana’s childhood, a more innocent time when she didn’t have to worry about all the Royal Christmas shenanigans. Though of course she’s stuck in a gilded cage and she can’t go anywhere near her old house without anyone noticing and interfering.
But then the third act comes and a funny thing happens. At some point, it’s like the BRF finally realizes that it’s in everyone’s best interests to simply let Diana have her way. If her psyche is tearing itself apart to try and get something, maybe just step aside and let her get what she needs. Is this an anticlimax borne of lazy storytelling? Probably. But there’s a lot more that could be going on here.
On one level, it’s like the wait staff finally remembers that she’s the goddamn Princess of Wales and maybe the next Queen of England should get to enjoy a bit of the power she supposedly has. On another level, it might be in everybody’s best self-interest to let Diana run herself ragged if it will mean she brings less drama for the BRF to worry about. Or maybe — just maybe — they finally found a shred of human empathy and they genuinely care about her to some degree.
In any case, Diana has pushed the royal family customs and traditions to the breaking point like only she could. By the end of the film, she’s gone so far crazy that there are no rules or protocols to deal with her. The entire BRF has to stand down because they don’t have an answer for all her psychotic breaks. That’s certainly one way to make the argument that the BRF is an outdated relic, but I’m not sure that throwing a bulimic and self-harming tantrum until she gets her way makes for an ideal female protagonist.
Oh, and on a miscellaneous note for those who didn’t know, any pearl necklace worth its weight (read: fit for literal royalty) would have knots in between each pearl. The necklace would be specifically designed to keep all the pearls in place in the event of a breakage. This is a basic common-sense measure to make sure all the pearls don’t go flying off in all directions like Martha Wayne just got murdered again. And seriously, I don’t think even the Batman franchise ever dared to scatter so many pearl necklaces in one movie to the degree that this one does. So can we please retire that stupid threadbare cliche already?
Kristen Stewart was never a conventional choice to play Princess Diana, but this was never going to be a conventional portrayal of Princess Diana. From start to finish, it’s abundantly obvious that the filmmakers were more interested in contemplating what Diana might have been like behind closed doors and away from the cameras, when she had a bit more freedom to break down from all the stress and vent her frustrations with the in-laws. Moreover, the film argues that no rational human could possibly deal with so much pressure and bullshit all at once, thus some kind of mental breakdown would be inevitable.
If the filmmakers were really going to try such a batshit portrayal of the concept while keeping the more photogenic Princess Diana at least somewhat plausible, it’s hard to imagine any actor out there who’d be a better fit than Stewart is here. Moreover, it helps that Stewart is surrounded by such seasoned supporting players as Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, and Stella Gonet. Literally everyone else in this cast would be a perfectly standard choice to play a straight dramatic portrayal of the royal family, and that’s exactly how they’re all playing their roles, except for Kristen Stewart. It helps to underline her status as the misfit of the BRF, implicitly deepening the contrast between them.
But it also brings me to a huge problem with the film. One that intractably pervades the entire picture from literally start to finish.
The central thrust of the entire film is that the British Royal Family is an arcane and obsolete institution. The film is overtly critical of the traditions that are still intact and observed through the centuries, for no better reason than inertia. That’s all well and good, except for the tiny little problem that these traditions have been in place for centuries and they were built to last. As such, they can only bend so far, and the filmmakers are strangely hesitant to break them.
Timothy Spall’s character gets this lovely monologue about how the BRF has tremendous symbolic importance far greater than any one person. Stella Gonet (here playing Queen Elizabeth II herself) gets a showstopping line about how the royal family members themselves are effectively national currency. And from the very first frame, the filmmakers take extraordinary care in portraying every aspect of the Sandringham Estate’s inner workings down to the last painstaking detail.
It’s like the filmmakers are trying to actively subvert the BRF while paying homage to it. That’s a tough needle to thread, and I’m not sure the filmmakers found a way to do that. And that’s ultimately why the film didn’t work for me.
I’m not sure I really got Spencer. The performances are all solid, and Kristen Stewart more than deserves all the praise she gets, but I don’t think the film went far enough in making its point. The film had everything it needed to be a Black Swan-type psychological thriller, but it’s like the filmmakers were too afraid to go that far. This is a film completely unafraid to show Princess Diana cutting herself and vomiting in the throes of a stress-induced psychological break, but there’s nothing anywhere near so hard-hitting against the institution of the Crown itself.
Overall, I think I would put this on par with Jackie: The shock value won’t be enough to escalate this into anything memorable in the long run. The film might get a few nominations, but I wouldn’t count on any wins. I’m sure there will be many other, better awards contenders in the coming weeks to watch instead.