The very best biopics can turn well known celebrities into near mythical figures, rewriting their histories by projecting widely held public perceptions of their inner lives onto them. Pablo Larraín might be the only director who strictly views public figures in terms of this mythological status when crafting a biopic. Historical fact is often sidelined for a weightier examination of the media crafted narratives that shape how we view famous faces, our assumptions of what goes on behind closed doors becoming a grander allegory for the state of the nations around them.
Billed as a “fable based on a real tragedy,” Spencer is considerably unbothered with straightforwardly recounting the tortured final Christmas period that Princess Diana spent with the Royal Family. Instead, Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight transform a personal tale into a wider analysis of a familial unit in decline, where a need to follow tradition has turned authoritarian, and the woman keeping the group culturally relevant is treated as a pariah. The filmmakers’ approach is often spellbinding, with several moments effectively creating a sense of paranoid unease, the palpable sense of everybody silently watching Princess Diana’s every move. The wider Royal Family are largely kept offscreen in Spencer, but one can feel them breathing down the neck of every single frame via Timothy Spall’s servant, Major Alistar Gregory, who is hired to keep an eye on the Princess of Wales at all times,
The problem with this approach is that it can often veer into the exploitative. I was left thinking about recent documentaries on Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears that aimed to address media harassment simply by repurposing the footage. Although an entirely fictional film, Spencer has a similar problem by aiming to address how struggles in Princess Diana’s personal life and unwanted media attention caused her mental health to deteriorate, further triggering her lifelong struggle with an eating disorder. While this is pivotal to the character study, Larraín and Knight don’t tread particularly carefully when addressing it. Sequences of Princess Diana eating are treated as hallucinatory nightmares, with Johnny Greenwood’s experimental jazz score growing more erratic — a serious condition like bulimia is stylized as a shocking character trait, topped off with a bizarre final scene that feels like an incredibly distasteful gag when considered in this context. The filmmakers are obviously reverential towards Princess Diana, but they frequently fall into the same sensationalized traps that marred a lot of the media coverage during the subject’s lifetime.
Spencer’s humanity largely comes from Kristen Stewart’s deeply empathetic understanding of Princess Diana as a tragic public figure, her central performance frequently elevating the several misjudgments in terms of narrative. Stewart hired the same vocal coach as Emma Corrin, who played the People’s Princess in The Crown season 4, in order to better personify Princess Diana. In a Larraín biopic, it’s essential to understand the ways a public figure has been immortalized onscreen, in order to further play around with the semi-fictionalized mythology. As a result, Stewart often seems like she’s performing in direct response to previous screen incarnations of Princess Diana, not attempting to embody a famous face, so much as she’s trying to characterize the way the public perceives her character.
This is certainly an aspect that stands out in Knight’s screenplay, evidenced by several conversations between characters about how the royals will eventually be perceived simply as currency. Knight’s overly written prose is a frequent distraction, which pauses to pontificate on a wider cultural context in the moments when it’s not dealing in heavy handed metaphors for Princess Diana’s place in the Royal Family. She’s frequently seen reading a book about Anne Boleyn, with Spencer often straining to inform viewers of the perceived similarities between the pair, culminating in Princess Diana even seeing herself as Boleyn during an intense fantasy sequence. This works best when Larraín plays it up as high camp gothic horror, but when the film reverts back to a more somber examination of her mental health struggles, it can be deeply misguided.
There is a general sense of otherworldliness that feels enrapturing in Spencer, even if Larraín stumbles while addressing the heavier themes. The film was shot entirely in Germany due to Brexit, a decision that adds an element of metatextual metaphor — a story about an institution bound by its traditions that has to be filmed outside of its home country, due to a political event decided by a ruling class that’s desperate to return to the past. As the critic Cathy Brennan has pointed out, much of Larraín’s work is set in the wake of the Chile’s Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, making the filmmaker’s perspective of Britain during this era a particularly intriguing one. Spencer is set a year after Pinochet’s reign ended, but with the British conservative government (many of whom supported the dictator) still in power. This is only alluded to during a clip of the Queen’s Christmas speech on TV, the monarch referencing the rising numbers of democracies around the world. Yet she sits as an unelected head of state, the one member of her family who doesn’t directly conform to regal expectations.
Spencer doesn’t aim to capture the real Princess Diana, but Larraín does expand upon her legacy as a near mythical figure. It makes for an intriguing, often entrancing approach to biopic filmmaking, but one that frequently veers into exploitation when addressing the most sensitive aspects of the subject’s life.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.