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Graphic, Disturbing and Confronting: Spencer (2021)

Spencer is not the first film about  Diana Princess of Wales, nor, given her fame and eventful life, is it likely to be the last. This latest offering tackles its subject from a more novel, more introspective approach.

Generally, it avoids the glamorous aspects of royalty and even downplays the overt conflicts within the members of the royal family. Instead, it focuses on the restrictive demands her royal status has on her mental state.

It covers a few days during Christmas 1991 when the royals gather at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. Since it is set well before the scandals and media circus that enveloped her subsequent  life, there is little of the royal glitz and glamour and nothing of subsequent media sensationalism.

Consequently, the emphasis is not on her jet setting lifestyle or impressive charity work. Even her effect on the very traditional royal family is relatively muted. As a result, the characters of Prince Charles and even the Queen are largely peripheral to the unfolding drama. 

The conflict depicted centres on whether Diana can assert her identity. The central theme is her struggle to maintain a grip on reality in a rather insulated and often stifling environment. The film underlines this from the very beginning. The opening scenes show a line of army trucks and soldiers acting in seemingly military manoeuvres, something incongruous with a family Christmas get-together, even a royal family’s. This jarring introduction sets the tone for the insular and cloistered world depicted in the film.

Surrounded by courtiers, security staff, servants and manipulative in-laws, Diana’s inner turmoil increases. She faces constant scrutiny within the royal household, the highly artificial world she was thrust into as a young woman.

Kirsten Stewart in Spencer directed by Pablo Larrain (2021)

Kirsten Stewart dominates the film as the troubled princess; she conveys vulnerability and insecurity but also displays hints of the strength and resolve that will define Diana’s later life. In addition, she looks and sounds like Diana (a far cry from the lovestruck teen of the Twilight series). Clearly, there are elements that are inaccurate but this is part of the director’s artistic licence. Probably only her fans or those who’ve read her various bios will notice these idiosyncrasies.

For those who like films with more conventional structure, this movie comes across as slightly disjointed. Spencer has no significant plot but mainly comprises a collection of scenes, some real, some imaginary. Initially, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. The episodic, fragmentary structure will not appeal to the more conventional audience. 

It is a disturbing film because of its subject matter rather than any failings of its actors, writers or director. However, this does not detract from the overall value of the work. It is not about the glitz and glamour of royalty but the unsavoury realities of this particular lifestyle on vulnerable individuals. The fact that we know Diana’s ultimate fate brings this conflict into sharper focus. 

While we can never be certain what goes on behind closed doors, this film offers a believable reconstruction of events. Because of the personal introspections, a very intimate picture emerges. We often feel as through we are peeping through keyholes and listening at closed doors of a royal palace.

An imaginative and credible take on the emotional trauma and personal struggles of a young woman well before she became an icon of the latter twentieth century.

Graphic, disturbing and confronting, even for Diana fans.