Spencer Review – A Thrilling Exploration Into the Idea of a Woman the World Assumes They Know, but Never Really Did

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The influx of Diana-focused content in recent years has ranged from the mortifying tackiness of an utterly shit musical, to an exhaustingly overrated television series. This array of media wouldn’t be complete without some award season bait, and that comes to us in the dizzying glory of Spencer.

Directed by Pablo Larraín, responsible for 2016’s immaculate Jackie, Kristen Stewart leads in the role of the Princess of Wales herself. It’s a performance that is everything all rave reviews before this have heralded it as. In the early moments you can’t help but be all too conscious of the fact you’re viewing an actor committing fully to the part. Every wince and twinge Kristen Stewart exhibits is on full display in those alarmingly close close-ups. Having recently wasted time watching Justin Kelly’s worthless take on a fascinating story, JT Leroy, there was a fresh awareness of Stewart’s acting. In poor direction, her effort is obvious and her ticks inescapable. Thankfully in Spencer, Kristen is fully supported by a competent director and her acting melds into Diana as Pablo’s gracious direction guides this hazy weekend with the royals. It’s a thrilling exploration into an idea of a woman the world assumes they know but never really did.

What we do know is the best way to approach a biopic is through focused storytelling, very rarely does the retelling of a whole life actually work or offer anything more than a play-by-play of a life’s noteworthy happenings. Spending these days with Diana is a stressful experience. It’s slathered with such a thick paranoia that at any point this film could’ve turned into a full-on supernatural horror and it wouldn’t have been much of a shift. You can’t escape Diana’s sense of claustrophobia, nor can you help but find yourself breathing in the same dusty air full of skin of the long dead inhabitants of the miserable palace when Diana points it out.

For a woman whose story has been constantly told by an endless array of individuals who knew her at one time or another, it’s to the credit of Steven Knight’s writing that such a specific identity was settled on. It’s brilliant just how detailed this Diana is, every aspect of her being dominos into the other. Her fear and anxiety is entirely understandable, but there’s also the aspect of her that is a petulant child set on making things harder for herself. She wants to rebel and she wants to cause trouble. For all the depth that she has, she is still very much a princess, and Spencer can’t resist being an examination of the princess archetype itself. 

This story of a princess presented an ideal opportunity to explore a key aspect of this reiteration of Diana – her eating disorder. With its considered showcasing, disordered eating hasn’t been presented with this knowing since Mavis Gary’s KenTaco Hut binge in 2011’s Young Adult. Diana’s bulimia is handled explicitly and intertwined with every bit of paranoia and grief her life is burdened by. When she’s eating those pearls in the snot green soup, forcing it down in frenzied distress, that palpable choking and horror is not a melodramatic take, it is very much the confronting reality of forcing yourself to eat when all you desire is to restrict. Eating disorders have a history of being treated flippantly and diminished as a ‘pretty girls disease’. Reflect on any media that explores anorexia or bulimia, usually it’s the ballerina or the model dealing with it.

There are many dangerous explorations and exploitations of eating disorders in media that offer themselves as nothing more than romanticising how-to-guides with visuals to be added to folders labeled “thinspiration.” Yes, the tableau of Princess Diana collapsed at the toilet bowl in her Chanel gown is an all too on the nose and glamorous display of the superficial tragedy of an eating disorder, but there is a full telling of the experience in this film. Earlier on in this film it shows Diana’s private moment, sneaking into the kitchen and gleefully picking away at the food in storage, only for her joyous moment to be interrupted by a lurking presence. Petrified in her own shame, it’s an entirely effective display of the full scope of an eating disorder. The highs and the lows, the secrecy and the inescapable humiliation. While Spencer isn’t only a film about eating disorders, it’s an intrinsic part of the story that offers insight even heavier handed takes on the subject failed to offer.

Throughout the story, it has moments where it could have easily succumbed to its almost cartoonish display of the English Royals. Timothy Spall deserves to snatch any and every supporting Actor award because he’s a delight whenever he enters a scene with a rodent’s scamper and effectively jerks Diana’s ever-present anxiety. Not to mention the delivery of that war time tragedy monologue. The mostly mute Queen Elizabeth looms as an assumed villain, her presence nearly comical with the fear Stella Gonet’s performance inspires. Jack Farthing plays every bit the weasel that we know Charles to be. His standout scene with Diana with an unsubtle metaphor as the two trade dialogue from opposite ends of a pool table. He’s a pitiful man that makes his betrayal of Diana all the more embarrassing. There is no love left between them at all.

Even Diana’s memory of the wedding manifests as her own insular experience in that hideous puffy bridal gown. Other times in her life are remembered too, her past and present selves twirling down and around the various halls and rooms of this cursed manor. It’s a delightful scene and the second best dance scene of the last year (sorry Spencer, you’ll have to settle for silver, Titane takes gold). It offers a cathartic moment that shows the girl Diana could no longer be, desperate to be free to spin and pirouette instead of the stagnant two step shuffle that was her royal life. 

Spencer could’ve easily faltered and been an embarrassment for everyone involved, but thankfully it ended up as being the shining example that finally delivered something of substance far beyond the surface scandal and spectacle of Diana’s mythology. She might’ve been the people’s princess, but this is a story all her own.

Director: Pablo Larraín

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing

Writer: Steven Knight

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