SPENCER, directed by Pablo Larraín (JACKIE), has been one of my most anticipated films since I first heard about it in the production process. Not only does it check all of the boxes of my interests (royals, a female lead, costumes, a haunting score, breathtaking cinematography), but it also has one of the strongest performances of the year with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana.
Introduced as “a fable from a true tragedy,” the film follows Princess Diana (Stewart) in 1991 as she joins her royal family members for Christmas weekend at Sandringham House. Before arriving, Diana’s last bit of independence and freedom involves ditching her security detail and driving her Porsche with the top down, hair blowing in the wind. This freedom is quickly quashed when she enters the stodgy estate’s gates.
Diana is clearly at her wits end, telling her young sons to let her know when she is acting crazy because she will only believe it if it comes from them. And it’s clear why. Her surroundings are as regimented as they are lavish, from the extravagant dinners—whose ingredients funnily enough arrive in military crates—to her rack of gowns, each specifically chosen (not by Diana) for the next social gathering. She also is being choked (at times literally) by specters of her crumbling marriage and the knowledge that her husband is cheating on her with his longtime mistress; he even had the nerve to give them both the same Christmas present.
But even more than that, Park House, the house she was born in, is on Sandringham’s grounds and is metaphorically calling to her. Diana begins having nostalgic feelings about the good times, before she was caught up in the royal circle and the publicity, duty, and scandal that comes along with that. She misses the days when she had friends she could count on and wasn’t the center of every whisper. Her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and chef (Sean Harris) are the only people in her inner circle that she feels she can somewhat trust. This is not the Diana you are used to seeing, but one that is in the depths of depression. The only semblance of control over her own life is through her eating disorder and finding ways to reject her royal family’s expectations and traditions.
I know it sounds weird to call Kristen Stewart an underrated actress because she is what Hollywood would consider “A-list,” but I don’t think people realize just how gifted she is. Of course, the misinformed are always going to think of her as just the girl from those vampire movies. And while I do love Kristen in TWILIGHT, I also see that franchise as a stepping stone in a flourishing career that gets better and better with each role. She is one of only a handful of actors that I can rely on to always pick good projects. I know if Stewart is in a movie, it is one I need to prioritize and she is going to absolutely shine. Never has that been more clear than with SPENCER.
SPENCER lives and dies with Stewart’s performance, particularly as the supporting cast of royals are treated as blurry wallpaper in almost every scene. And Stewart was more than up for the challenge. She made the role her own, completely disappearing into and embodying Diana’s mannerisms, accent, and demeanor with incredible emotional depth. And who better to cast in such an intimidating role than someone who can tap into her own experiences with public scrutiny and the intrusive eyes of the press. This is Stewart’s film through and through and I can think of no one better to display Diana’s vulnerability, magnetism, and resilience.
If Stewart is the lead of SPENCER, her costar is Claire Mathon’s (PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE) absolutely stunning, dreamlike cinematography. I cannot count the amount of times I found myself gasping at specific shots in the film. Mathon uses the environment’s haunting landscapes to frame many of her shots… almost as you would a psychological thriller. After all, Diana was living in her own repressed hell, a ghost of who she once was, so it’s no surprise that she would see her surroundings as painful and eerie.
As a history nerd, I appreciate that the film draws comparisons between the tragic story of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn and Diana; this film does center around a very unstable period of Diana’s life. However, I worry this esoteric, almost supernatural addition to the movie is at times too on the nose and has the risk of alienating some audience members. It was one of the few elements of the film that I heard people questioning after the movie ended.
In case you couldn’t tell, if you are looking for an upbeat, lighthearted film about The People’s Princess, this is not the movie for you. It is a haunting, slice of life look at a woman on the brink, struggling with what her life has become. And although it isn’t shown in the film, weaved throughout is the inherent tension of what we know will tragically occur six years later in that Parisian tunnel. Larraín is correct in saying this film is based on a true tragedy, reminding us that Diana was a real person and that every fairytale may not have a happy ending.
My Review: B+
SPENCER will be out in theaters November 5.