In 1991, the royal family gathers at the Sandringham House in Norfolk to celebrate Christmas. Even the Queen has arrived but Diana (Kristen Stewart) is nowhere to be seen. Recklessly driving around in her convertible without a security detail, the Princess of Wales is lost. When she finally makes it to the house, the reception she receives is icy cold.
Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is touted as a “fable from a true tragedy” and this perfectly captures the essence of the movie. It talks about Diana’s struggle to stay afloat. Her marriage is crumbling, the press is always on her back, and she is struggling with bulimia. To make matters worse, she is forced to partake in the family’s Christmas celebrations where no one even acknowledges her presence. At one point, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) cruelly remarks to her to keep her food in at least until after church. Larraín paints her marriage and royal life for what it really was – a nightmare.
Spencer is gothic, eerie, unnerving, lonely, and dramatic at the same time. There’s Anne Boleyn’s ghost, thick fog tightly wrapping the Sandringham House, and it is always cold. The metaphors are plenty and the lines between reality and make-believe are blurred.
We watch the princess’s deteriorating mental health as she is stripped of her agency by her family. Her curtains are sealed, her only confidante Maggie (Sally Hawkins) is sent away, and people continue to knock on her door even when she is vomiting.
Kristen Stewart delivers as forlorn Diana. Rather, she is a forlorn Diana. Through her hallucinations, her distress and, desperate need for literal warmth, Stewart makes the late princess a human and pitiable character.
The supporting cast further elevates this devastating plot. Farthing gives a compelling performance as the emotionally distant Charles despite his limited screen time. (Perhaps, it was intentional to truly capture the prince’s absence.) Stella Gonet’s portrayal of the cold and disapproving Queen Elizabeth makes it hard to ignore Diana’s plight.
At one point in the movie, Diana wonders how she will be remembered in the future. She remarks maybe it will be “Diana, the insane.” Of course, in reality, this is way off. One of the most popular figures of our time, she has been immortalised on television and film so many times now that Spencer is a refreshing (though devastating) take on her life. Some of the more poorly-received adaptations include Naomi Watts’ Diana and 2020’s Diana: The Musical.
With actor Elizabeth Debicki gearing up to portray the princess in the upcoming season of The Crown, it is evident that the sensation around Diana’s life will not die down any time soon. And, if you enjoyed Spencer, here are four other films and shows about the princess that you might like:
The Crown Season 4 (2020)
This fictionalised account of Queen Elizabeth’s reign has been garnering acclaim and awards. In the show’s fourth season, the makers introduced Diana before she became the ‘people’s princess’. Starring Emma Corrin as Diana, The Crown explores her down-to-earth personality, her courtship and subsequent marriage to Charles, and also her struggles with bulimia.
Corrin was lauded for her convincing portrayal of the late princess and her performance even won her a Golden Globe award.
Diana: In Her Own Words (2017)
In this National Geographic documentary that aired in 2017, the makers use recordings of Princess Diana to narrate the events that took place in her life. These recordings served as the source material for her biography by Andrew Morton. Directed by Tom Jennings, Diana: In Her Own Words showcases recordings from 1991 where the princess discussed her personal life, including anecdotes from her childhood, her marriage, and her reaction to Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.
The Queen (2006)
Starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, this 2006 drama film is set after the death of Princess Diana. It follows the Queen as she tries to deal with the aftermath of her former daughter-in-law’s car accident. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair called for the royal family to acknowledge her death and significance publicly; they refused, causing an outcry.
While The Queen is mostly viewed as a film that deals with the royal family in general, it also captures the long-lasting impact of Diana on their lives and the nation.
Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (2017)
Told through the eyes of her sons, Princes William and Harry, this HBO documentary depicts Diana’s life as their mother, rather than a public figure. Showcasing interviews from her sons, her brother, and other close aids like Elton John, the documentary also delves into her work and achievements.
Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy captures a different side of the princess as it mostly focuses on her relationship with her sons and the influence that she had on those around her.