‘Spencer:’ An unnecessary addition to the landscape of Crown-related media

The new fictionalized Princess Diana biopic is successful in depicting the confines of royal life, but sensationalizes real-life struggle through the lens of psychological horror.

by Macy Harder

With Netflix’s release of the acclaimed series “The Crown,” the passing of Prince Philip and Oprah’s tell-all interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the British royal family has been a hot topic in recent pop cultural discourse.

But even for those who stay enthusiastically up to date on royal buzz, the newest piece of Crown-related media, “Spencer,” won’t be everyone’s cup of British tea.

The fictionalized biopic of the late Princess Diana details three days spent at the Sandringham House, the English residence where the royals often celebrate Christmas. The film provides a sensationalized depiction of Diana’s experience being trapped within the tight confines of royal life, as well as in her marriage to an unfaithful Prince Charles, through a haunting psychological horror lens.

But in dramatizing this nightmare, “Spencer” seems incredibly reductive of the whole portrait of Diana, narrowing in on misery and mental illness in a plot that leaves audiences with very little to chew on.

As the film opens, a singular line appears on screen, “a fable from a true tragedy,” informing audiences from the onset that the movie will offer a somewhat-fictional story based on Diana’s real life. For nearly two hours, we watch this version of Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, edge closer and closer to madness as she’s forced to navigate the holidays with her royal counterparts.

Director Pablo Larraín emphasizes certain aspects of Diana’s experience through this film’s surreal elements and dramatized plot points. The quiet, tense nature of the film is almost claustrophobic, but it allows audiences to feel Diana’s struggle of being trapped in an unhappy marriage and within the fierce rigidity of royal life.

Every action and utterance that takes place in Sandringham, and perhaps within the royal family in general, is closely monitored; Larraín makes this clear from the film’s opening scene, which gives viewers a glimpse of a wall sign that reminds kitchen staff to “keep noise to a minimum, they can hear you.” There isn’t a moment when Diana’s behavior isn’t being policed, and she even refers to herself as an insect in a dish under a microscope. There is no escape — not from Sandringham, and certainly not from the pressures of royal life. Her outfits for certain meals have been planned out ahead of time, labeled with tags that read “P.O.W.:” Princess of Wales, or perhaps something a bit more metaphorical.

Larraín relies on surrealism throughout the film’s entirety to enhance this theme of entrapment. He incorporates a recurring image of Diana’s pearl necklace, gifted to her by her husband, Prince Charles. This piece of jewelry becomes a symbol of Charles’ infidelity and the deterioration of their marriage, as we learn that he gave the same necklace to the woman he was having an affair with. We watch as Diana tugs on the pearls, a struggling fight against their chokehold. At one point, the necklace breaks, and pearls splash into Diana’s soup. In a dream-like sequence, she picks up her spoon and swallows each one with a strange fervor, almost as if she’s swallowing everything she wishes she could say to Charles.

Despite the film’s success in depicting Diana’s place within royal life and the psychological effects of such captivity, “Spencer” rests greatly on making a spectacle of her misery and mental illness.

The duration of the film’s runtime leaves audiences waiting for any sort of significant advancement in the narrative, and sadly, it never arrives. In addition to the rapid deterioration of Diana’s mental health, her struggles with bulimia are depicted extensively in a way that doesn’t add much to the plot. It feels as though this is being unnecessarily used as a crutch to emphasize her anguish in this tale. Conflating Diana’s eating disorder with a nightmare-ish, surreal fable of despair feels like it was done in poor taste, given how open Diana was about the way bulimia impacted her real life.

Besides potentially opening new doors for Stewart in terms of her acting capabilities, “Spencer” doesn’t bring much to the table in terms of our understanding of Diana’s life and royal family dynamics. In a way, the story feels reductive; it shrinks the infamous “people’s princess” into a portrait of hopeless struggle, and fails to acknowledge the rest of the pieces that made Diana who she was.