Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 24, 2022)
Back in 2016, Pablo Larrain directed Jackie, a look at former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy that took place over a brief but pivotal period of time. With 2021’s Spencer, Larrain creates an effort that takes a similar approach to Princess Diana.
As Christmas 1991 approaches, the English royal family heads to their estate in Norfolk. This happens with the backdrop of a faltering marriage between Price Charles (Jack Farthing) and Princess Diana (Kristin Spencer), one strained largely due to his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith).
While the clan goes through various festivities, the reality of the situation weighs on Diana’s mind. With her mental state in decline, Diana devotes much energy to various personal domains.
As I’ve noted many times, I prefer biopics that concentrate on a limited time span versus those that go for a broader chronological span. Whereas the latter tend to feel like general “greatest hits” reels, the former manage greater introspection and psychological impact.
In theory, at least, as that didn’t prove accurate with Jackie. Though that one offered some flashbacks to early days, it largely viewed its title character in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and it lacked much real depth or emotional meaning.
If one hopes to find anything better from Spencer, one will encounter disappointment. The film offers a shallow, superficial view of its subject that feels downright monotonous.
Larrain beats us over the head with the view of Diana as trapped and suffocated by a family more concerned with tradition and appearances than happiness. From virtually start to finish, we see Diana as miserable and beaten-down by the pressures of royal life.
Sure, I can accept that. Simply because one lives a life of immense wealth and privilege doesn’t ensure that one leads a content existence, and rich folks are just as messed up as the rest of us.
Unfortunately, Spencer simply fails to find an interesting way to tell the tale of Diana’s issues. Essentially we get 117 minutes of Diana as she mopes and pities herself, without much else to leaven the tedium.
At times Spencer threatens a little more intrigue because it leans into Diana's erratic mental state. For instance, in one scene, she tears off a necklace and eats the pearls in her soup.
It seems clear the film doesn’t intend this as a literal event, but Spencer portrays it in a way that blends with the rest of the tale. This means we find ourselves submerged in Diana’s perspective.
However, Spencer rarely finds an insightful way to portray this POV. Instead, we just watch Diana as she pouts and sulks, without any actual insights beyond Poor Little Rich Girl.
Again, I don’t intend to seem dismissive of the problems faced by the wealthy, and indeed, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a fishbowl of fame like that through which Diana went. Nonetheless, Spencer can’t locate an interesting and rich way to investigate her situation.
As such, we wind up with the monotony I mentioned, and Stewart’s performance doesn’t help. She bats her eyes and speaks in a breathy, staccato way that makes me wonder if she felt she got cast as Marilyn Monroe. Stewart does nothing to elevate the thin script.
As I alluded at the start, I appreciate the approach Spencer takes in that it focuses on a short period of time in its subject’s life. Unfortunately, the end result just meanders and bores.