Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021)
It’s Christmas Eve, and Diana is late to dinner. Punctual kitchen and house staff quietly await her arrival. The food is ready. Rooms and tables are set in pristine condition, not designed to be disturbed but to be followed. As pointed out by Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), hired to observe and report Diana’s every move, all those employed by the Queen have taken an oath. It’s a sense of responsibility they fall back on, becoming less like human beings and more like lines in a rulebook. Not at all keen to follow any sort of rulebook, Diana’s individuality is weighed down by the expectation to behave a certain way. Over the course of a Christmas weekend at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, where Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is set, the qualities traditionally synonymous with the season such as togetherness and family time are capsuled in a world within a world. A world Diana shares only and understandably with a select few; her boys first and foremost, William and Harry. Her confidante, Maggie, as well. All the while, the chimes of tradition ring louder and louder, as she wrestles to break free. Standing out as a fable, Larraín brings a distinct perspective to Spencer that is so defiantly a unique story of character. Set apart from various portrayals of Princess Diana over the years, the film has an interesting ghostly element, as though being haunted by a previous life. Working wonders with Kristen Stewart as the beloved icon, Spencer is a stunning achievement.
A portrait of Princess Diana is painted in a thoughtful, curious, and surreal way. Rather than land on traditional points about a real-life figure and adhere to a typical biopic structure, Spencer experiments with style. The clarity in Larraín’s vision, coupled with Stewart’s laser focused performance as Diana, make for a resonating manic drama. The screenplay by Steven Knight finds strength in telling a story around a moment in time, exploring the finite details of a few days in her life. The story lives inside Diana’s mind, at a point where her marriage to Prince Charles is crumbling and the narrowing chilly world around her grows more watchful. During a weekend full of protocols, such as having a selection of outfits she must wear only at designated times, the film conveys how the overall environment affects Diana’s wellbeing. With a consistent and clear tone, Spencer takes on the form of a psychological drama operating from emotion, wearing its heart on its sleeve, portraying the sadness and loneliness of a woman who also has no one she can truly confide in at any given moment.
One of the more unique elements of Spencer is how magnificently the film plays on time. A weekend feels like a lifetime, capturing that distinct feeling around the holidays where time slows down. As though holding onto the idea of warmth and joy synonymous with the season. There is also a surreal feeling to the story, where the past and the present are the same. Diana has existed in this rigid setting and way of life for so long (nearly 10 years at the point the film is set), that her past becomes an evergreen ghost story. A previous life, one before Prince Charles, begins to haunt her and envelope her surroundings. Muted pastel palettes, hazy atmospheres with a coat of fog, the ominous figure of Anne Boleyn, nightmarish surrealist scenes like having pearl soup. With stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon, an often spooky-looking exterior creates vivid and dreamlike imagery that puts the story in an imaginative setting. Accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s memorable score, Jacqueline Durran’s gorgeous costume design, and an accomplished hair and makeup team that make all the work look effortless, Spencer is beautiful to look at.
Beyond the visual artistry, the casting of Princess Diana is of course the most crucial for this film, and casting Kristen Stewart is genius. In her most accomplished work to date, Stewart absorbs the character and sinks into a personal interpretation. It’s an unexpected performance in that she keeps each and every moment interesting. She reveals layers of wit, poignancy, and delightful awkwardness as the film unravels alongside her. She conveys the spirit of a woman wanting to break free, whose personality sees the light of day in bursts. It’s a performance rich in detail, from the change of body language when she’s in public vs. private. The relief but sadness in the moments she keeps to herself just from not having another soul to share with. She’s playful and curious, moving and unforgettable. Alongside her, a strong ensemble including Sean Harris, Timothy Spall, and especially Sally Hawkins work like magic. Hawkins, who plays Diana’s confidante Maggie, is another example of spot on casting. The actor has an instant quality of trust and warmth. She has a perfect scene with Stewart that gives the film an emotional release, a reminder to Diana that she is so loved, and conveys the importance of sharing love.
There are two vivid moments in Spencer that encompass such love. One, an entrancing dance sequence, showing an activity intimate to Diana, a personal expression of self that is as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming to watch. The other, a carefree moment shared between Diana and her boys as they sing together in the wind. The film intelligently shows the essence of the person; how does she feel, how does she make others feel, how do others on the outside feel about her. The blend of realism with surrealism gives Spencer a distinct perspective that stands out as its own creation and speaks with its own rhythm. At its core, a woman pondering on what she hopes to leave behind on this earth. Pablo Larraín and Kristen Stewart work wonders to shine a light on her impact.