Spencer (2021)

All right, cards on the table: despite being plenty old enough to remember the marriage, divorce, and death of Diana, I didn't really pay much attention when it was going on. Or after, for that matter: I never found the news specials, documentaries, or movies/shows appealing. To put it another way, I know very little about the life and death of Princess Diana. I went into Spencer with virtually no context about her or the royal family.

That might be an issue here, because I get the feeling you're supposed to have a little background before seeing this movie. It seems to be challenging the viewers' understanding of Diana, which presupposes you actually have one.

I don't think this invalidates my opinion on the movie, but I want to be upfront about where I'm coming from and what my limitations are. If you're someone who's been fascinated by this person and the tragedy around her death, you're likely going to view Spencer through a very different lens and will most likely come to very different conclusions.

So, with that preamble out of the way, let's delve into Spencer's plot.

Actually, that's going to be difficult, because the movie doesn't really have much of a plot. It's more a character study than a story, and it's centered on three days in which Diana chooses to remove herself from the royal family after a number of uncomfortable interactions and visions. The mere fact I'm writing this up here should negate any surprise that the three days in question are December 24th through the 26th. I will note the particular events (or lack thereof) are inherently fictitious (the movie's opening labels this a fable). It's sort of an odd caveat, given there's very little that actually happens within the movie itself. Or rather, the things that occur are almost entirely psychological - Diana's journey through the movie is internal, not external.

There are, of course, catalysts for what she's going through, but those catalysts occur almost entirely prior to the start of the film. Likewise, the real consequences play out after.

To the degree the movie has a plot, it centers around Diana's sense of paranoia and unease at a lifestyle she feels trapped in through her marriage to Charles, who's been having an affair publicly. Diana feels as though she's being watched constantly, which is fairly accurate due to the high level of security.

Somewhat surprisingly, the royal family themselves are more a presence than they are actually present. Diana spends most of the film doing everything in her power to minimize her time with them, and she's largely successful. Since the film's POV is almost always trailing Diana, this means her husband and his family are barely characters at all. Her relationship with them is almost entirely implied rather than shown - we know what this version of Diana believes they think about her, but we don't really get much insight into how they actually feel.

Instead, the movie spends some time exploring Diana's relationship with her children. We also see her interact several times with Maggie, a dresser she considers a close friend, as well as McGrady, the head chef, and Gregory, the major in charge of security. We also see her interact several times with the ghost of Anne Boleyn, who...

Okay. That's probably going to need a little more elaboration. When Diana arrives at the Queen's estate, she finds a book about Anne Boleyn left out in her room. Anne was executed by Henry VIII, who wanted to marry a woman he was having an affair with. Seeing as Charles was likewise having an affair, Diana drew some obvious parallels. She begins having visions of Boleyn appearing to her. This goes on for a while, and the movie is ambiguous as to whether Diana is going mad. Diana herself is uncertain as to her mental health. It's easy to understand why - she has several visions, she cuts herself, and she nearly throws herself down a set of stairs before the ghost of Anne Boleyn stops her.

That last incident occurred in her family house, which Diana breaks into after leaving the Queen's estate on Christmas night. She sees numerous visions of her life, of how happy she was as a child and how miserable she is now, and contemplates suicide (or at the very least self-harm), but Boleyn appears and advises her to run.

The next day, she asks Maggie if she's "cracking up." In response, Maggie reveals she's in love with Diana, then tells her she needs "loves, shocks, and laughter." In effect, the question is the wrong one: clearly Diana is mentally unwell, but the solution isn't to adapt to a royal lifestyle - it's to escape it and find happiness.

Diana then interrupts a pheasant hunt (somewhat recklessly, as she places herself in the line of fire), and informs everyone she's taking her boys and leaving. Charles, somewhat surprisingly, prevents anyone from stopping her. The movie ends with Diana and the boys enjoying fast food in London.

Again, this really isn't a plot-based movie. Honestly, the bulk of the storytelling is accomplished through cinematography, editing, and scoring. The film features long shots of Diana isolated as the camera followers her relentlessly. You're almost always watching her, just as she fears. Similarly, the music features a mix of classical and jazz. There's a sense of unease in the sound constantly reminding you that Diana doesn't fit.

One of the movie's odder decisions, at least from my standpoint, was not to make the royals more explicitly antagonistic. The crown itself felt like the movie's antagonist, while the family holding it just came across as people adjusted to a lifestyle Diana couldn't stomach. Diana definitely believes there is a conspiracy against her, but I interpreted the few scenes where she actually interacts with them to imply the opposite: they're just weird people. They're not out to get her; they just don't really understand her.

I will note this may be a situation where my lack of background in the subject may be skewing my interpretation. There are a few moments where lines of dialogue felt like they could be references I was missing. So, take my interpretation with a grain of salt.

I feel a little more confident in my reading of the movie's decision to be set at Christmas. And, to be clear, I don't simply think it's a case where they went with the obvious excuse to have the characters gathered together. Or rather, I don't think it's just that.

Spencer is essentially a Christmas ghost story, a subgenre with a long history in England. This is most obvious around the visions of Anne Boleyn, but more than that the aristocracy is presented as a sort of specter of the past haunting Diana. Even her memories have a sort of ghostly presence as she wanders her boarded-up family house. You get a similar feeling from numerous other backdrops in the movie, as Diana wanders through mist or takes a jacket that once belonged to her father off a scarecrow.

Nothing is explicitly supernatural - if anything, I'd say the movie ultimately implies mundane explanations for all these phenomena - but this is more tonal and thematic, anyway. Again, this movie is mostly an internal journey, so ultimately the metaphysical reality of the situation would be irrelevant even if it didn't open by lamp-shading the fact the events are a work of fiction.

So, with all that said, what do I think? Well, from any kind of objective standpoint it's a very good movie. It's beautifully shot and extremely well-acted. Kristen Stewart's casting has of course been lauded for her role, but I think Sally Hawkins and Sean Harris are likewise fantastic as Maggie and McGrady.

All that said, while I think the movie is technically great, I didn't exactly love it. I think the movie would have benefited from more time building Diana's relationships, both with her sons and with Maggie. The scenes we got with these were among my favorite moments in the movie, but given the significance these connections had, I felt like they deserved more attention, particularly in the first half.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I also thought the movie ran a little longer than it had to. I felt like I had a good handle on Diana's phobias and mental state early in the film - I'm not sure we needed as much reinforcement as we were given.

But again, this isn't a piece of history that I'm particularly knowledgeable or interested in. Those of you with more of a background are likely to view the film far more favorably. Hell, even some of you who aren't experts will love it - Lindsay was far more smitten by this than I was, and she didn't know any more about Diana than I did. The tone just really appealed to her, as did the film's psychological exploration of its lead.

And I can't dispute those elements were handled expertly. That leaves me in an unusual position of highly recommending a movie I didn't entirely love. This one wasn't entirely for me, but I have to admit, it's a hell of a great film.

Due to its subject matter, I almost want to suggest this as a companion piece to The Lion in Winter. They're very different movies, but both explore dysfunctional British royalty during the holidays.


  1. I streamed this movie. I want those 2 hours of my life back.

    1. Fair enough. I transferred your request to the proper department, and they'll credit the runtime to your remaining time on Earth.


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