As Spencer opens on Christmas Eve 1991, the army is pulling up to the royal Sandringham estate. From their trucks they pull out machine gun boxes, labelled as firing ’50 cal’, some of the deadliest ammunition humans have ever invented. As it turns out, these boxes are full of fruit, seafood, and all the other ingredients for the lavish royal Christmas meals – luxury in a lethal casing. There couldn’t be a more fitting image to kick off Pablo Larrain’s gorgeous, riveting, and utterly mad account of Princess Diana’s final Christmas with Prince Charles, which follows the unravelling of a woman as the walls of her gilded cage start closing in.
Set over three days, Spencer finds Diana (Kristen Stewart) already at a low ebb when she arrives late to Christmas Eve lunch, her misery instantly compounded by the icy-cold rooms, inflexible itinerary, and the ‘traditional’ pre-Christmas weighing in of the family that instantly triggers her bulimia. Diana’s very real mental health issues aside, Larrain and writer Steven Knight (of Peaky Blinders fame) are more than aware of how inherently silly, even childish, the stakes here are – no one forces you to join the House of Windsor, and a princess having a bad Christmas is hardly the end of the world.
Ingeniously, they find a balance of both leaning into the absurdity and undercutting it with more existential problems. Spencer can play as darkly funny farce, especially when the rest of the royal family are around, but it can also tap into a far deeper well of feeling. At the heart of the film is Diana’s relationship with William and Harry, incredibly well-played by a pair of remarkable child actors, Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry. All their scenes as a tight-knit trio are wonderful, building to a magical, bittersweet ending that I found immensely moving despite a profound real-life disinterest in all things regal.
Much of this is, of course, down to Kristen Stewart’s central performance, which both perfectly matches Larrain’s heightened tone and drills deep into the realities of depression and anxiety. It’s up there with the best work of Stewart’s impressive career, and instantly pushes her to the front of the Oscar pack. Much as he did with Jackie, Larrain laser-focuses in on Diana’s headspace while the supporting cast pop up here and there mostly to deliver monologues. Of these, the standouts are Timothy Spall as the ex-soldier assigned to keep a watchful but sinister eye on Diana’s excursions around the grounds and Sally Hawkins as Diana’s dresser Maggie, perhaps her only (adult) ally on the estate.
Intriguingly, the rest of the royals are kept on the sidelines – though their stuffy oppressiveness is felt everywhere – which ends up being a fantastic choice, hammering home Diana’s feelings of isolation while also deftly avoiding too many comparisons to Netflix’s The Crown. Instead of talking to Charles (Jack Farthing) or the Queen herself (Stella Gonet), Diana finds herself in conversation with Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), as Spencer makes the inspired leap into a full on ghost story.
The comparisons between Diana and Boleyn (wilful women who had to die to make way for their spiteful husbands to remarry) are perhaps laid on a little thick, but that hardly matters when the haunting is pulled off with such breathtaking grace. It’s surreal and ethereal and even a bit scary, albeit only briefly, one of the greatest stylistic coups in a film packed with them. Claire Mathon’s dreamlike cinematography melds memory and fantasy while Jonny Greenwood proves yet again that, alongside Mica Levi, he’s working on an entirely different echelon to pretty much every other composer in the industry.
Seamlessly shifting from the haughtily classical tunes you might expect to disarming pieces of free jazz, Greenwood’s score keeps you on your toes, as jittery as Diana herself, but also finds room for more uncomplicated beauty. A montage of dances in all of Diana’s various dresses is a gorgeous centrepiece showcase for everyone involved, thrillingly conceived by Knight and executed by Larrain while the incredible costumes, colours, and music amp up a superb bit of performance from Stewart. From the beginning, you’re never quite sure what sort of road Spencer is leading you down, but once everything finally gels together, you’re left with one of the most magical and cathartic films of the year.