A Nightmare During Christmas: A review of Spencer
Home Alone is a 1990 film starring Macaulay Culkin about a well-off kid’s elaborate plot to keep two thieves from intruding his house during Christmas. Spencer is a 2021 film starring Kristen Stewart about a perceived intruder, dealing with the different traps laid to keep her out of the royal house. Both films are more tales than real stories, both depicting the struggles of people to pursue their interest in the face of an ominous power that is greater than themselves. The difference, which sets the latter above the former, is the magnitude of the obstacles—clever traps against a whole political system.
The film chronicles three days in the life of Princess Diana during her stay in Sandringham for the 1991 Royal Holidays soon after deciding to divorce Prince Charles. It’s clear from the start how little Diana fits in the rigid structures of the palace and estate, where everything needs to be perfectly monitored and timed. She is childish in a house where not even the kids are allowed to be—missing dinner, going on walks, getting changed with curtains open (God forbid!), and rebelliously dismissing the stone-cold service with great lines like, “Leave me alone. I wish to masturbate.” Stewart is perfect in the role, portraying the internal struggle of the Princess with the subtlety that the estate requires and great empathy in the warm moments with her sons and her close friend and confessor, Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins.
On all filmmaking fronts, the film is exceptional. Claire Mathon’s beautiful tactile cinematography infuses the weekend with a home- movie feeling like the ones you keep under the bed at home, just way posher, as if mixed with the most lavish portraits and landscapes that you can find in your local art galleries. Steven Knight’s screenplay is perfectly tight, a great fable that, while maybe not perfectly realistic, is always truthful. Chilean director Pablo Larraín— the maker of last year’s Ema, which tragically passed over the country with a virtually nonexistent theatrical release—directs with a subtle hand so that, while it is not always clear what is of his making, the excellence in all departments is proof of his skill. Most notable is Jonny Greenwood’s score, another masterpiece to add to his list, combining free jazz with classical music, drawing connections between tradition and modernity, giving a claustrophobic effect to the most mundane activities, which are also the ones most removed from reality in this fantastic land. All culminates in one of the best scenes of the year, a montage of all the happy memories that Diana has experienced in these grounds, as a child, teenager and adult, dancing among memories and finally finding hope in the desolate landscape of an abandoned house.
While the story here is inevitably one of first-world problems, it is hard not to see something to take away with us. There is a line all around the walls of the house: “they hear everything”, obviously referring to the royals, which reminds the staff to stay disciplined. For Diana, this has a different meaning. The “they” is everyone—the press, the country, and still, of course, the queen and her husband. The crown is painted as an inherently unnatural institution, one that dehumanises all within it into a set of traditions that suppresses all possible aspects of individuality and chews out those that it can’t tame. The royals cannot afford to be people, and at points, it seems like no one other than Diana wants them to be. The freedom and childish wonder of Diana, her rebellious, dancing soul, is presented as the culmination of the failures of the crown and the bomb that cannot explode. But what the film reminds us is that this is not just the Princess of Wales, but a mother who wants herself and her children to be happy. The genius of the screenplay, direction, editing, cinematography, costume and set design, performances, and sound is that it encapsulates the whole historical, social and political relevance of the centuries-old institution that is crowned in three days in the life of a mother and her kids.
There is, of course, the issue of realism, and that I will not try to solve here. Like Home Alone, Spencer is a fable—though based on a true tragedy as we are reminded at the beginning— and, as such, I take it to be a fantastic one, in all meanings of the word.