2021 | R | starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins | directed by Pablo Larrain | 1 hr 57 mins |
Kristen Stewart has mightily pushed back against her Twilight beginnings with great performances in great movies like Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. Again paired with a director with a vision, Stewart takes it a notch even further in Spencer completely disappearing into the role of Princess Diana, over the course of taxing weekend with the royal family while visiting their Norfolk estate during Christmas. It’s a star turn in a career full of them and it’s only one of the many things that makes this movie sing.
Spencer is a beautiful film, capturing the overcast countryside in wide overhead static shots and the winding halls of a palace in unbroken tracking shots and washed out colors. It’s positively Kubrickian, methodical and heady, like Barry Lyndon meeting The Shining. Director Pablo Larrain assembles this film out of a series of unique choices, throwing focus where it wouldn’t normally be to create an impression of oppression that hangs over the film without devolving to the kind of melodrama movies about the People’s Princess tended to in the past. At no point is Diana seized by paparazzi or pulled aside and threatened by a member of royalty, who generally come off pleasant in the film. Instead, from the moment she arrives to the castle late and is forced to a ceremonial weigh-in to the schedule of her daily wardrobe changes, Diana is squeezed through a machine of tightly regimented tradition and carefully staged events that ensnares all of the royals.
This is my kind of biography, one that forgoes a chronological stepping through the events of a character’s life (Bohemian Rhapsody) and uses a single important event to tell their story. Here Diana arrives at the castle with the rumor that Prince Charles is having an affair with Camilla and the press is more concerned with her outfits than his infidelity. It’s part Descent into Madness movie, indulging in an interpretation of what may have happened behind closed doors on this weekend and cinematic flights of fancy, wrapping symbolic chains around Diana’s pearl necklace, one that takes us into her bulimia in a startling way and links her across time to Ann Boleyn (who keeps appearing in Diana’s visions as a soulmate and a warning). The film however, never goes off into the intensity of a movie like Black Swan or Saint Maud, keeping one foot firmly planted in reality all the way to the film’s invigorating end.
Another interesting choice that the script by Steven Knight makes is to focus on the servant class. We see the head chef (Sean Harris, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) receiving an army’s worth of ingredients and marshalling his staff to deliver the royal Christmas meal. We see Diana’s favorite maid (Sally Hawkins) arranging her dress schedule. At first glance this has an upstairs/downstairs Downton Abbey quality, however, ultimately Larrain is suspending Diana in a purgatory between both worlds. The film constantly keeps Diana at a distance from the royals, often coming in the room after they’ve left, once to a post-Christmas present-opening mess, however the servants are always there in ways that are both comforting and equally stifling. They are also an untrustworthy communication line to the entire house. More than once someone cautions Diana that anything that gets said anywhere will become widely known, will be used as currency in the house by someone to get something.
It makes it work all the more, that Diana’s trappings are so fundamentally pleasant, the dinners immaculately prepared and the setting a place most people would die to visit. The film refuses to demonize the royal family to it’s benefit so much so that at a point in the film, I felt my perception shifting to viewing Diana as a prisoner to an upstart being disrespectful to the Crown and traditions that this family gives up it’s life for. That’s where the film cracked open as greatness for me, the kaleidoscope of perspectives it generates that allows us to come at it from different angles and see different things.
It’s to the film’s benefit and detriment that it doesn’t go into the whole life story of Diana, Princess of Whales and her tragic end. On one hand I was grateful for it, we’ve seen her backstory before and there isn’t a reason in this film to re-introduce it to us again. On the other hand it does require knowledge of Diana’s life to explain why she is feeling what she’s feeling, why she can’t just go with the flow and why she interprets acts of tradition the way she does, that might be lost on future generations coming to this story for the first time. However, as a mood piece, as a point-in-time biography, Spencer is excellent filmmaking. One of the very best movies of the year.