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‘Spencer’: a dark fairy-tale with no happily ever after

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Kristen Stewart is an unlikely but convincing Diana in this haunting psychological drama.

“A fable based on a real life tragedy,” the opening credits read. And so begins ‘Spencer’, Pablo Larraín’s fictionalised depiction of a torturous Christmas in the life of the late Princess of Wales. Diana has just three days to get through at Sandringham, but with frosty treatment and a loveless marriage it’s as though she’s in an interminable, feverish nightmare. From the second she steps foot on the estate and is made to weigh herself on a perversely ostentatious pair of golden scales, it’s clear that this is not going to be a festive rollick.

This is not a sensationalised, explosive, tabloid article of a movie. More ‘Crimson Peak’ than ‘The Crown’, Sandringham becomes a suffocating haunted house under the direction of cinematographer Claire Mathon. The film is gothic and even surreal in tone, all shadowy hallways and dream-like sequences. As Diana’s psyche crumbles, the lines between reality and imagination blur, with the spectral figure of Anne Boleyn haunting the corridors as Diana begins to identify with Henry VIII’s tragic, spurned second wife. Jonny Greenwood’s horror-esque score is unsettling and powerful, amplifying the intensity of emotion that the movie revolves around.

Larraín doesn’t get everything right. This is a distressing watch for anyone who has struggled with eating disorders or self-harm, as Diana’s difficulties are dealt with in a no-holds-barred, explicit manner. The Princess’ battles are imperative to any exploration of this period of her life, but the graphic scenes of bulimia and self-inflicted injury are arguably gratuitous. Some scenes are also ill-fitting, with the concluding minutes seeing the princess escape the suffocation of the royal household with her sons and speed away on an impromptu trip to KFC. Although touching – and supposedly based on a true story – it’s a strangely jarring ending for what has until that point been an atmospheric tale reminiscent of an A24 flick.

That being said, the jewel in the film’s crown is most certainly Kristen Stewart’s Diana. This is not the People’s Princess who is so beloved for her charity and compassion – this Diana is self-involved and not necessarily likeable, and it’s only the scenes with her sons and dresser Maggie that render her more sympathetic. But Stewart exceeds all expectations. Although her British accent could be more convincing, she brings the screen to life with a portrayal that is vulnerable and thoroughly compelling. From her mannerisms to her carefully considered, overwhelmingly genuine showcase of a full spectrum of human emotion, Stewart gives a stellar performance that is already being hailed as Oscar-worthy.

Fundamentally, ‘Spencer’ is a psychological character study. The royals themselves are secondary figures to the plot, as the spotlight remains firmly fixed on the Princess and her increasing fragility. The Queen is seen in a blink-and-you-might-miss-it interaction, with limited screen time for even Jack Farthing’s unsympathetic and callous Prince Charles. Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall excel in their roles as Sandringham staff, but they are less stand-alone stars than supporting mechanisms to explore Diana’s relationships within the royal household. Larraín focuses more than anything on the Princess’ isolation and vulnerability, a grown-up Rapunzel locked in the opulent tower of royalty.

If you want an explosive account of royal scandal, you should look elsewhere. This is by no means a run-of-the-mill biopic, and is arguably deserving of a place in the annals of modern gothic horror. In some respects, royalty is even peripheral to the story. Above all, Larraín’s creation is a dark portrait of a tormented woman’s isolation and entrapment – her captors just so happen to be the Royal Family. ‘Spencer’ is an original take on the abundance of Royal-centric media that is more than deserving of a watch. Just don’t go in expecting a conventional ride.

first year politics and spanish student at the university of bristol :)
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