Synopsis: With a failing marriage and a slowly eroding sense of self, Diana, Princess of Wales, heads to Sandringham House to spend Christmas Day, 1991.
1. Spencer is quite the oddity. After all, you hear the term ‘period costume drama’ and immediately the worst comes to mind – stuffy, airless pontification about trivial aristocratic bullshit that middlebrow audiences eagerly lap up. Instead, Spencer eschews the typical handsome-but-slight frippery for something bolder and wilder, serving up a helping of psychodrama that is far more indebted to horror cinema over the ages, from the Gothic to Polanski’s women-in-distress pictures to even the grande dame of them all, The Shining. Anchored on a phenomenal performance by Kristen Stewart, Spencer aims to convey the fraying psyche of its titular protagonist, and is largely successful on that front, give or take some overly obvious lines and visual metaphors that try just a little too hard to hammer home points that have already been made. Nonetheless, Spencer, just like the woman it is named after, attempts to breathe new life into a world that has grown staid and stale, and for that, it deserves a great deal of praise.
2. I don’t normally start with performances, but it’s unavoidable in this case, because Kristen Stewart’s Diana is the movie. On a semi-personal note, I have been a long time apologist for Kristen Stewart since 2014 (when I saw Clouds of Sils Maria), and it has been a lonely role to take on. The road from ‘lol Twilight‘ to ‘omfg what a talent’ has been a much slower one than her erstwhile co-star Robert Pattinson, due largely to a combination of (i) Stewart’s naturalistic style being a lot less flashy (and thus less immediately obvious as ‘good acting’) than Pattinson’s weirdo energy, (ii) starring in less critically acclaimed films (aside from the Olivier Assayas collaborations) and (iii) good ol’ fashioned misogyny. So it brings me a great deal of pleasure to finally welcome the rest of the world onto K-Stew Island, because her work on Spencer is so modulated, so magnetic, and so masterful that it should once and for all banish the sparkly vampire spectre that has always loomed over her career. (1)
3. What Stewart delivers is less of a performance than an evocation, and watching it, I am reminded of Roger Ebert’s description of Anthony Hopkins playing Richard Nixon, that it ‘creates a man instead of imitating an image.’ Stewart may not be doing an exact impersonation of Diana, but that’s not the point. What is the point is how perfectly she captures the idea of a Diana falling apart at the seams, confined only to petty rebellions and little moments of pique like turning up late for sandwiches or wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes for meals. In these scenes, and the many others where Diana’s attempts to confront the implacable institution of royalty comes to naught, every molecule of Stewart seems to hum at a frequency that is both atonal and melodic, of frustration, anxiety, and grief counterbalanced by decorum, politeness, and aristocratic breeding. It’s a performance of a lifetime and a worthy successor to other great ‘woman on the brink’ portrayals like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence, Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, and Julianne Moore in Safe. Above all, the physicality of Stewart’s performance is impeccable, from the little things like how her hands constantly betray her innermost thoughts even when she attempts to keep a straight face, to an ecstatic montage at the climax of the film where she literally dances and sprints through her memories. It’s so good that I would say the movie would be worth watching purely for the performance.
4. Just as well, then, that there is much of Spencer that is worthy of recommendation. Sticking to acting, Sean Harris (best known for playing the villain in the last two Mission: Impossible movies) and the indomitable Sally Hawkins (2) do fine work in the roles of palace chef and dresser respectively who both serve as Diana’s confidantes at points. In contrast, Timothy Spall’s Major Gregory is nothing but cold adherence to duty, and the veteran thespian is as excellent as always at playing the closest thing this film has to an antagonist. The rest of the royal family is deliberately shrouded, portrayed more as symbols than real people, though Stella Gonet and Jack Farthing manage to give just the tiniest glimpses of humanity in their scenes as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Credit too, to the child actors Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry, who have nice chemistry with Stewart and provide the rare sparks of warmth in an otherwise chilly film.
5. Behind the camera, Pablo Larrain does not stray too far from the template he established in his English language debut, Jackie (a movie about a famous historical woman and style icon undergoing trauma and public scrutiny – the man has a type). Shallow depth-of-field, lengthy, stylish tracking shots interspersed with tight close-ups of his leading lady, and a gauzy soft focus all lend Spencer a certain sense of unreality, which makes sense when considered against the opening title card of the film, which proclaims it as ‘a fable from a true tragedy’. Larrain does resort to handheld far more often than in Jackie though, perhaps harkening to the invasive nature of the paparazzi cameras that tailed Diana for decades. These moments certainly lend Spencer a nervy, jittery energy, especially when they are in such stark contrast to the handsome ‘traditional’ shooting style Larrain otherwise employs. The lighting in this film is also very well done, with a range of muted dim lights amplifying the Gothic haunted-house nature of the film, as well as the overall chilliness of Sandringham. These are also contrasted to two scenes that are lit very differently, a game of ‘toy soldiers’ between Diana, William and Harry bathed in warm candlelight, and a climactic scene on the beach between Diana and Sally Hawkins’s Maggie suffused with so much natural light that it feels like someone has wrenched open a curtain. Larrain also leans quite heavily into elements of surrealism and impressionism, dipping in and out of Diana’s imagination and memories and intermingling them with reality as her mental state fractures further. It’s generally effective, and at the bare minimum it enlivens the film by lending it a tinge of psychological horror (down to, I kid you not, an Anne Boleyn jump scare).
6. If there is one issue with the movie though, it is the screenplay. While the bones of Steven Knight’s script are solid, from the cross-genre pollination to its clever three-act structure mirrored in Diana’s three days at Sandringham, it cannot help itself from relentlessly underlining its points, to the extent where it almost feels insulting to the audience. Let’s use a good example. In the first scene, when the British army arrives bearing the provisions for the Royal Family, we get a nice shot of a dead pheasant as it is driven over by multiple armoured cars. Later on, there is an argument between Diana and Charles as the former states that pheasant shooting is barbaric, with the latter saying that they are bred simply to look beautiful and get shot. At this point, you’d have to be some kind of dunderhead not to see the connection of Diana and the pheasants as beautiful creatures that are tortured for royal entertainment. Got it. But then the movie keeps going on and on and on about it, from horrifically on the nose dialogue (Diana stating that the descriptions of pheasants as ‘beautiful, but not very bright’ could describe her too) to overly obvious visual metaphors (did she really have to spread her arms like wings at the very end?) The pheasant thing is far from Spencer‘s only crime against subtlety, with the connection between Diana and Anne Boleyn also jackhammered into the viewer’s head constantly. Perhaps Knight and Larrain felt that the more alienating aspects of the movie needed to be counterbalanced by some handholding, but this feels more like an angry parent dragging a child by the arm back to the car. A little more nuance could also have been provided for its protagonist’s emotions, who does seem to lurch from meltdown to meltdown too often, seemingly more reliant on Stewart to do the heavy lifting to provide the necessary emotional shading that the screenplay lacks.
7. Still, regardless of its writing issues, Spencer is very much still a film worth watching. Kristen Stewart’s central performance will deservedly gain plaudits for its control and depth, but credit must also go to the able supporting cast and the creative team for taking a fair few risks in telling this story. Steven Knight’s screenplay and Pablo Larrain’s direction breathe new life into the moribund period drama genre by taking risks that by and large are successful, even accounting for some overly obvious dialogue and visual metaphors. By leaning into horror tropes and a more impressionistic directorial style, Spencer stands out amongst its contemporaries, and because of that, far more ably captures its protagonist’s inner turmoil and psychological distress than any handsome but hollow prestige drama ever could. And at bare minimum, it adds yet another to the many, many, many reasons to hate the British Royal Family, so that in itself is a win. No seriously, screw those guys.
Final Verdict: Recommended