This review of Spencer comes from the film’s screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Stay tuned for more information when the film opens in November 2021.
The biopic of Princess Diana Spencer It is not your prototypical biopic. On the other hand, the film’s director, Chilean author Pablo Larraín, is also not known for making family biopics. His descriptions of Jackie Kennedy’s life after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Jackieand the poet Pablo Neruda fleeing the new Chilean president Gabriel González Videla in Neruda, are raw, unyielding films that focus closely on a specific moment in their subjects’ lives.
Same with Spencer, Larraín does not provide the expected story of Princess Diana. There is no courtship or fairytale wedding, to the The crown. She does not chart her life since she was a newborn destined to reach greater heights. Nor does it place her as a predictably doomed victim. Instead of, Spencer takes place over a Christmas weekend in 1991, on the Queen’s Sandringham estate. Diana (Kristen Stewart) is still in a rocky marriage to Prince Charles (a cold Jack Farthing), or at least partially. During her stay, Diana faces her role as the mother of her two sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), and faces her eating disorder, her family history, and the dominant men who guide her daily life.
Larraín’s film, which opens with a title card that reads “A Fable from a True Story,” is not based on a totally real event. Nor does he want to tell Diana’s life story. Spencer It is an act of psychological horror, a kind of ghost story and a survival image carried by an incredibly immersive Kristen Stewart, in the best performance of her career.
Stephen Knight’s script doesn’t hit viewers over the head with built media village princess myths. Knight and Larraín are too smart to use such simple tools. Instead, they find more subtle ways to weave their legend into a realistic narrative. Spencer It begins with Diana, without a driver or bodyguard, driving herself to Sandringham House. The unsuspecting royalty loses their way and finally decides to stop to ask for directions. In front of normal people, he assumes a shy and somewhat vulnerable disposition. His eyes move skyward as his head tilts to the side. The scene is the first outline in Stewart’s layered representation of her: the differences between the private princess and the one who watches the public.
This is a biographical film deeply concerned with analyzing Diana’s psychology, and specifically, her many demons. But not in a lewd way. As he heads to the Sandringham Estate, he sees a scarecrow standing in the middle of a field, dressed in his father’s red coat. (In real life, her father, John Spencer, died three months after that Christmas of a heart attack.) She goes to get the warm clothes, hoping they will clean it. Diana grew up on the Queen’s estate at Park House, making her trip to the Christmas festivities an encouraging homecoming and an unfortunate duty, causing a source of pain to affect her in various ways.
Diana also connects with her ancestry in the movie. Equerry Major Gregory (a stabbing Timothy Spall), a rugged Scottish war veteran who now takes care of the Queen, annoys Diana into conforming to tradition. A “game” has visitors weigh themselves initially upon arrival, to see who gains the most weight during the holidays. This tradition brings Diana’s insecurities with her weight to the surface. And after finding a book about Anne Boleyn in his bed, possibly placed there by Major Gregory, he dreams of the distant relative, Henry VIII’s second wife, who was beheaded after he falsely accused her of adultery. Between the shelter and spirit of Anne Boleyn, Diana is drawn to her now doomed childhood home.
Who can blame Diana for feeling locked in? Aside from her tailor and best friend Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and the friendly farm chef Darren (Sean Harris), she’s pretty isolated. But once again, Larraín is too smart to limit Spencer to perfect Diana’s relationship with the other royals around her, or even her relationship with Charles and his lover, Camilla Parker Bowles. Instead, he focuses on describing how Diana is trying to protect her children from the archaic and closed traditions of royalty. But in the face of dominant men like Charles and Major Gregory, coupled with the farm’s uncompromising protocol and his eating disorder, he can hardly protect himself. Her mania makes her Christmas vacation more of a fight for survival than a getaway.
Jonny Greenwood’s score begins as a British classic, then morphs into a mystifying symphony. Following an aesthetic similar to Jackie, cinematographer Claire Mathon (Atlantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) captures Diana in intrusive close-ups, her lens peering over the princess’s heartbreaking facial expressions. Mathon also takes a keen interest in the hauntingly manicured features of the estate: the uniform garden, the demanding movements of the austere servants, and the meticulously prepared food and clothing, contrasting with Diana’s free fall. Meanwhile, the costume work of the legendary Jacqueline Durran covers the greatest hits of Diana’s best-known costumes, with an evocative array of fashions that often speak to her state of mind.
But Stewart’s absolutely outstanding performance is what ties Diana’s tradition and Larraín’s conception of her together, creating a complete version of the princess that doesn’t depend on broad or flashy instincts. Stewart folds into her body to update Diana’s nervousness, bows her head in a familiar way, and makes the princess’s voice perfect. But beyond that, his performance boils down to his eyes. Stewart’s eyes move like razors through the grass. And each look claims another victim, showing a kind of helplessness or shyness, depending on the situation. It is his eyes that make her jump over the line of action into a totally vivid aura. There is never a time when I am Kristen Stewart as Diana. She is Diana.
The movie has two climaxes, and one comes when Diana finally returns to her childhood home. She’s frantic and mind-boggling, and Mathon’s camera zooms in even more dangerously close to her. This is where Jackie Editor Sebastián Sepúlveda shines, providing a vivid and haunting montage of his life before then. The other climax turns the film’s tenor from gloomy to festive. Considering the film’s sadness and how deep it descends into despair, the quick turnaround towards the revelry should feel sensitive, almost as if Larraín is fooling the story. But it works, because the director knows that the audience has an inherent desire for Diana to have a happy ending.
In that sense, Larraín Spencer, an inspired portrait of the life of the princess who is more concerned with finding new truths in her public and private persona than with following the familiar rhythms of her life, it is not the classic biopic that audiences are used to seeing. But it is the inventive and iconoclastic film that Diana deserves.
Spencer It will hit US theaters on November 5, 2021.