During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana decides to leave her marriage to Prince Charles.

Diana, Princess of Wales, contemplates her future with the Royal Family during a tumultuous Christmas in . The Royal Family has gathered at Sandringham House for the 1991 Christmas holiday. Getting lost on her way over Diana (), in the midst of very public marital issues with Prince Charles (), is the last one to arrive. Kept under the very watchful eye of Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (), Diana dreads having to spend three days with the Royals, with her taking solace in her dresser Maggie () and Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady ().

Spencer is a fictionalized biography of Princess Diana directed by Pablo Larraín (Jackie) from a screenplay by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises). The film is described at the beginning as a “fable based on the true tragedy,” as it depicts Princess Diana at a major crossroads with her relationship with the Royal Family. Diana finds a book about Anne Boleyn in her room and finds parallels between her current situation and that of the former Queen, who was beheaded by Henry VIII so he could marry his mistress. As the Christmas holiday proceeds, Diana increasingly finds herself moving towards the tipping point.

It has been 24 years, since the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash while avoiding the paparazzi. Pablo Larraín opts not to depict any of that in Spencer, instead of setting the film at the beginning of the end of her marriage to Prince Charles, who is depicted in Spencer as a very cold individual, who chastises Diana about her presumed eating disorder and teaches their son William (Jack Nielen) to shoot peasants against her wishes. Indeed, it is the moments with William and his brother Harry (Freddie Spry), where Diana is free to just be herself, without worrying about behaving a certain way or wearing a pre-chosen dress.

Spencer is less a straight biopic of Princess Diana and more a character study about a woman, who is on a verge of a nervous breakdown. There are many scenes within Spencer that are almost played out like a horror film, particularly when Diana begins having visions of an apparition of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), whose tragic story is reframed as a bit of a cautionary tale for Diana. Ultimately, as the title suggests, Spencer is a film about Diana reconnecting with her previous identity as simply Diana Spencer, which leads to a very bittersweet conclusion to the story.

On paper, having an American like Kristen Stewart play Princess Diana isn't the obvious casting choice, however, Stewart ends up completely disappearing in the role, which includes putting on a pretty convincing accent. It also helps that there are very few recognizable actors in the supporting cast, save for featured characters played by Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, and Sally Hawkins. While Harris and Hawkins' characters of Darren McGrady and Maggie act as confidants for Diana, Spall's character of Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, based on David Walker, is the defacto antagonist of Spencer, who is there is ensure that Diana doesn't do anything to embarrass the Royal Family during the Christmas holiday.

Despite knowledge of Diana's ultimate fate, it is interesting that Spencer decides to conclude its story on a somewhat optimistic note. In many ways, this somewhat adds to the ultimate tragedy of Diana's life, who despite receiving emancipation from the Royal Family, would still end up being hounded by paparazzi, which would eventually cost Diana her life.

While Spencer should not be viewed as a film for its historical accuracy, it is described in the opening titles as a fable, after all, it is still a very good and bittersweet look at the woman behind the princess.

Spencer is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and other select cinemas

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Trailer for Spencer

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Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly is a freelance film critic and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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