In its interminable wardrobing, lavish setting and populist pro-Princess pitch, Spencer would seem to perfectly embody what Christopher Hitchens once labelled the “kitsch iconography” that surrounds its famous subject. Indeed, the film’s opening chyron, “A fable from a true tragedy,” prepares us for hagiographic fantasy, casting the late Royal yet again as the victim in a (convenient, sublimated) storybook drama. But the movie’s parade of patently untrue, often absurd details in fact adds up to a complex fantasy that manifests the urgent, overarching truth so often avoided by depictions of the British ruling class: they are a horror show; always were and always will be. A true tragedy, indeed.

Spencer was conceived when its director, Pablo Larraín, decided to craft a thematic follow-up to his 2016 feature, Jackie. That earlier film points to the basic wheres, hows and whys of Spencer’s plot: tracking a brief period in which its protagonist, a woman married into a position of great consequence, must navigate her passage to the next stage of her life. Here, Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight imagine three days over Christmas, 1991 wherein Diana, Princess of Wales realises that her unhappy marriage to a cold and plainly unfaithful Prince Charles is no longer tenable. The director and his cinematographer, Claire Mathon, closely align us with Diana (Kristen Stewart) as she arrives late to her obligatory appearance at the Royal family’s festive celebrations and proceeds to stomp unhappily about Sandringham House and its grounds for a couple of days, complaining of authority, expectation and tradition before escaping, implicitly, forever. (The couple would indeed officially separate a few months later.)

Spencer Interior

Courtesy of: STX

The film’s basic strategy rests on this simple character-audience alignment—not just for its own internal emotional logic but for its relationship to the accepted narrative so nauseatingly epitomised by the sobriquet “the people’s princess”, coined by establishment attack dog Julie Burchill and popularised by establishment war criminal Tony Blair. It can be easy to conflate whatever sympathy we develop for Kristen Stewart’s Diana with the often oppressive populist sympathy for the real deal, and thereby scorn the film for simple-minded and implicitly Royalist sentimentality. (David Sexton’s negative review in The Spectator falls quite fully into this trap.) But the filmmakers are careful to construct a character who works largely on her own terms, so as to better communicate the deeper, more vital ideas at play. In other words, though it would be reasonable for any halfway leftist viewer to approach this film with ample scepticism, there’s much in the perspective being shown that, quite reasonably, wins us over.

The film’s opening moments introduce us to a clockwork, literally military milieu as Sandringham is secured and the kitchen staff installed. A solo piano cue then introduces Diana, driving down a winding Norfolk road, immediately the chaotic outsider to the order of all things Royal family. (Her first line: “Where the fuck am I?”) From thereon in, Stewart’s intelligent performance seems to dictate everything; Larraín often creates space for the actor to improvise large, physical moments of expressive melodrama as she walks from one place to another, creating a series of criss-crossing journeys that speak to the character’s attempt to find a sense of direction. For a usually so low-key performer, Stewart’s relative broadness here makes for a state of being that feels awkward, wrong. She remains in an almost unbroken state of tightness, her jaw and arms clenched, her every beautiful outfit worn as if a straitjacket. If there is an element of ridiculous impersonation—notably that recognisable demure head gesture; sometimes, it seems, weaponised—then, for the most part, this is somehow naturalised within Stewart’s fantastic feat of bristly physicality. And, jammed alongside her within those cavernous Royal spaces, we are constantly made to feel exactly what she’s bristling against.

Spencer Dinner

Courtesy of: STX

Pointed reference is made throughout the film to tradition, honour and the process of giving up one’s life to keep to these. One of the plot’s major stakes involves the need for personal discretion in the face of public scrutiny. Charles views his philandering as more acceptable than Diana’s because “I always take care to close my curtains”; meanwhile, the family as a whole are said—if, of course, only in allusive terms—to be shunning the princess and discussing their options. It’s clear that to best preserve the Royal family, a certain individual, a distinctly un-traditional liability, has to go.

The abovementioned thematic overtures are nothing new to Royal-related media—but where, say, Peter Morgan’s fêted Netflix series The Crown (2016- ), even in its rather pro-Diana, Queen-arraigning fourth season, comes unambiguously on the side of maintaining a tradition, of giving “structure” and “meaning” to British—and, heaven help us, global—society, of feeling only sympathy for Elizabeth Windsor, a complex woman who rises every day to a solemn duty thrust upon her by fate, Knight’s invocations of same contain a knowing emptiness. The majority of this film’s depictions of tradition are obsessed with its unreasonable, excruciating fuss—embodied, of course, by Timothy Spall’s stuffy, watchful equerry and symbolised in the motif of prescribed clothing for each occasion, introduced to the piece in one of Mathon’s more conspicuous and foreboding shots, the frame swallowed by Diana’s wardrobe as it is pushed down the corridor. The biggest scenes for the Queen (Stella Gonet, pinched and ominous) and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing, evasive and petulant) see them each talking about the duty of the Family in ways that read not as the filmmakers’ editorial statements but as the characters’ weird assertions in favour of total repression. All this is to say that Knight finds no particular honour or dignity in all this madness, and that’s a key distinction.

Spencer Queen

Courtesy of: STX

Even then: so far, so straightforward. But Knight and Larraín show themselves to be unusually sensitive to Diana’s actual, material status as the ultimate insider. The film’s take on the princess and her relationship to the monarchy is situated right there in the title: Spencer. Frustrating and upsetting it may be to watch a woman struggle with anxiety and bulimia in front of a completely uncaring family, Diana’s individual troubles are often contextualised here through space and dialogue, making her less the unfortunate, plebeian martyr of idealised myth and more the stark reality: that is, the latest in a series of nobles eaten up by the Crown of England when convenient. (Hitchens again, in his 1998 TV documentary Diana: the Mourning After: “[she was] a volunteer member of a very controversial ruling dynasty.”) It bears noting that, on the whole, one won’t find Royals marrying too far below their station, which rather makes the British aristocracy a literal breeding ground for potential partners—Diana’s father, an Earl, was, at one point, the Queen’s equerry; her grandmother, the Queen Mother’s “Woman of the Bedchamber”—and, indeed, the filmmakers are careful here to invent the disquieting vision of Diana looking across the churchyard after Christmas morning service and locking eyes with her love rival (and, ultimately, replacement) Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith), showing Charles’ orbit to be very small and select indeed. Such is the particular pathology of the British class system that not even a scion of one of England’s longest-enduring “noble” families is safe from the country’s desire to protect and preserve one particular family, all in the name of tradition. Sandringham itself is pushed to the fore as a potent symbol of this: former Spencer home Park House sits on the estate, here revisited several times as a completely dilapidated shell, crumbling throughout yet sitting there in the dark, behind barbed wire, at once both snubbed and swallowed up.

Spencer Field

Courtesy of: STX

Larraín’s use of creepy, rather gothic imagery extends to the way he shoots those ghoulish Royals, treating them as waxworks who don’t even think before standing every time their figurehead does and waiting passively for her to deign to begin a meal. This tribe is often arranged in ultra-specific tableaux reminiscent of the way Larraín filmed the cabal of suited politicos in the background of Jackie. Both films rest on a sense of unknowable discussions held and important decisions made behind the protagonists’ backs, which only adds to the disorientation. But where Jackie works toward its subject enacting her own plans and thereby rewriting history, Spencer finds its beleaguered lead trapped in a reverse Rebecca, where the efforts of the house are seemingly geared to preserving things for a second Mrs DeWinter, consigning the present Lady to the realm of the spirits. Not for nothing does Knight see fit to compare Diana constantly to one-time Queen of England Anne Boleyn, whose womb was briefly used before her head was swiftly removed and her bed reassigned to the next consort.

Indeed, Diana is often aligned with food here, as well as compared to currency by no less than the Queen. The film’s most striking sequence takes place on Christmas Eve, as Diana, clad in sickly light green, struggles under the Family’s watchful eyes to consume a sickly light-green soup; one of its silliest, on Boxing Day, sees her essentially take the place of the pheasants during a traditional shoot. (The pheasants, explains Royal Chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), “are bred to be shot […] If it wasn’t for the gun they wouldn’t be there.”) What makes this motif even more potent is the fact that in this film—composed as it is of hybrid characters, stand-in sets on a fake Sandringham estate and, most importantly, imagined conversations around only broadly true, publicly known topics—the only moments wherein re-creation can indeed just about encode a clear, genuine reality are those horrible shots that see Diana’s head surrounded by a toilet bowl. The potential gaucheness of transmuting an eating disorder into neat metaphor (and, in essence, pathologising) is largely swerved by some careful shot choices and a focus on emotion, rather than action; Stewart is more than up to the challenge of communicating that, in the symbolic context of the narrative, she is undergoing a physical reaction to this whole damn family.

Spencer Pheasant

Courtesy of: STX

Crucially, such stark scenes are weighted equally to those far less realistic moments. The film’s overall reliance on bizarre flights of fancy is precisely what makes it such an effective rebuttal to those Morgan works, and more broadly that type of entertainment referred to by writer and podcaster Luke Savage as “Tory drama”: pieces that deal with aristocracy in crisis and ultimately conceive of no conclusion more revolutionary than light modernisation, preserving the status quo through cosmetic touch-ups and, along the way, asking for (or demanding) our active support for those gatekeepers who conceive and arrange such tweaks. Where Spencer doesn’t really work is in some of Knight’s more naturalistically-pitched dialogue scenes: most every one of Sally Hawkins’ appearances as dresser and confidante Maggie (based on an anonymous staffer interviewed by the scribe) pretend to a level of honest, personal insight that the film is otherwise quite intent on collapsing. Anne Boleyn’s actual manifestations (courtesy of actor Amy Manson), meanwhile, bear a distinct staginess that Larraín can never quite integrate. All these moments, arguably through sheer lack of imagination, bear such stylistic proximity to the woolly, conservative Brit-heritage-drama archetype as to become functionally self-defeating.

It is instead in its hypnotic, cinematic qualities that the film builds its argument: the very pitch of Stewart’s performance makes for a sometimes darkly comic feel, daring us to find her Diana as annoying as her overseers do and taking on, occasionally, an arresting level of camp (“I’m not at all well!” is a pretty cool fuckin’ line reading); Jonny Greenwood’s score (mostly pre-written, then played on set) smashes together Baroque ensemble arrangements with modernist, post-bop jazz compositions; similarly, editor Sebastián Sepúlveda creates fascinating disjunctures (my favourite, near the start, throws off the expected eyeline match when we cut from Diana to Major Gregory; as we cut back from him to her, however, the match is, naturally, perfect) and works with that music and Mathon’s lovely camerawork to move the princess through this imposing domain at a variety of paces, each perfectly expressive and compelling.

Spencer Maggie

Courtesy of: STX

Through all this, we return to the notion that the film remains often quite credulous toward that enduring Diana mythos. Knight, as both writer and director (his three features as helmer are all fascinating, which isn’t necessarily a compliment), is marked by a real earnestness and sincerity (no bad thing) that certainly crops up here in those aforementioned dialogue scenes. Diana’s conversation with Darren reveals, with no trace of irony, that the “downstairs” staff think of her—and her outrageous press coverage—very differently to the rest of the family: “They want you to survive.” Larraín, for his part, has spoken of his own uncomplex sympathy for Diana, and describes this as a film about motherhood, which certainly provides the drama with its most tender scenes as well as contributing to its single most stressful sequence: young Prince William (Jack Nielen) pleading with his mother to calm herself down ahead of Christmas dinner. As with Larraín’s preceding film, Ema (2019), with which Spencer shares a lot of DNA, the wild balancing act is somehow pulled off: it is, indeed, impossible not to sympathise (I rather think this is what contributes to The Crown’s fourth season becoming, as The Atlantic’s Shirley Li describes it, its first to depict the Queen and her family as “fools”)—and that unavoidable fact is, in the final analysis, what makes the trenchant Spencer such a fascinating and full work.

Larraín’s films have always been interested in the truth—what that means, where it comes from, how it lives—and that living tension within Spencer between fealty to and critique of the Diana myth certainly speaks to a wider truth that lives inextricably within the painful social structure it so clearly demonises. As with Jackie, which proposed an awkward reconciliation between its genuine grief and its arch, sceptical study in history-writing, there is true purpose behind this film’s smart stylistic dissonances: they enact the film’s own slippery dialogue between its structuring form—the traditional aristo-biopic—and its textual meat, that deeply-felt mistrust towards the milieu that fills most every frame. I suppose that, for some, this anchoring in the insane, irremediably gauche fable of the People’s Princess inevitably diminishes its intellectual credentials—but, ultimately, as a sad and sickening film about the complex, messy dynamics of this whole, ridiculous country it becomes truthful in its tragedy.

So, to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 9…

#20 – After Love
#19 – Undine
#18 – No Time To Die
#17 – Ninjababy
#16 – The French Dispatch
#15 – Shiva Baby
#14 – Dune
#13 – Drive My Car
#12 – Annette
#11 – Minari
#10 – Sound of Metal
#9 – Spencer

Stay tuned for the remainder of 2021 as we count down our Top 10 films of 2021!