“Spencer,” described as “a fable from a true tragedy” that depicts a pivotal weekend in Princess Diana’s split from the Royal Family, should be viewed independently of Kristen Stewart’s fierce, attention-getting performance as Princess Diana. That is, you can admire the performance while still believing director Pablo Larrain’s fictionalised film adds little to a storey that many of us already know in great detail.
“Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, was directed by Larrain and featured a similar take on American royalty. He has created another strong showcase for the star while crafting a movie that is a little too precious for its own good in what is becoming his anthology of famous women facing crises.
For those who don’t remember, “Spencer” (Diana’s surname) takes off in speculative ways based on a true storey about Diana spending Christmas weekend with the Royals at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate as her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) was crumbling. She’s depressed and defiant as she arrives late, well aware that all eyes are on her even before she’s warned that the press is “circling us.”
As she reads a book about the ill-fated Anne Boleyn and wonders if she might end up on the chopping block, the dissonant music becomes a proxy for what’s going on inside Diana’s head (some of her long walks down the hall remind me of “The Shining”). She also has bulimia, to the point where the chef is concerned about her meals and Charles requests that she not purge them.
Diana’s defiance attracts the attention of a stern bureaucrat (Timothy Spall), who is assigned to keep an eye on her and protect the family from harm.
Meanwhile, Diana’s dresser (Sally Hawkins) is the most sympathetic character, who doesn’t blink when Diana tells her about a new outfit “”It doesn’t fit my mood,” she says of the Royal Family, and she assesses her position in relation to them by saying, “They can’t change.” You must alter your behaviour.”
In the end, “Spencer” aspires to be an uplifting account of Diana’s ordeal, capturing her at a point of profound unhappiness, where she appears to be forced to choose between breaking down and breaking free.
While Stewart imbues the character with her own personality, the film’s licence in labelling it a fable makes it feel less like an attempt to uncover the truth behind the turmoil and more like an indulgence with the misfortune of having to watch an entire season of “The Crown” devoted to it, and less successfully the Netflix presentation “Diana: The Musical.”
The enduring fascination with the Royals and those uncomfortably wearing crowns in general, and Diana in particular, makes this fertile territory — the circling never stopped — but there’s not much more to see or learn once you get past Stewart’s capture of Diana’s look and spirit.