This review of Spencer comes from the film screening at the Toronto International Film Festival 2021. Stay tuned for more information when the film is released in November 2021.
Princess Diana Biopic Spencer is not your prototypical biographical film. After that, the film director, the Chilean author Pablo Larraín, is also not known for making famous biopics. His pictures of Jackie Kennedy’s life after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Jackie, and the poet Pablo Neruda on the flight of the new Chilean President Gabriel González Videla in Neruda, are rough, unhappy movies that focus on a specific moment in the lives of their subjects.
Similar with Spencer, Larraín does not deliver the expected Princess Diana story. There is no wedding or fairytale wedding, à la The crown. It does not plan to take her life from a newborn who has fallen to greater heights. Nor does it confirm her as a prejudiced victim. Amplaz, Spencer takes place during a Christmas weekend in 1991, at the Queen’s Sandringham estate. Diana (Kristen Stewart) is still in a troubled marriage with Prince Charles (a cold Jack Farthing), or at least in part. During her stay, Diana struggles with her role as a mother to her two sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), and confronts her eating disorder, the history of her family, and the dominant men who love her. Scripting everyday.
Opening with a title card reads “A Fable of a True Story”, Larraín’s film is not based on a very real event. It also does not want to tell Diana’s life story. Spencer is an act of psychological horror, a kind of ghost story, and a survival story, carried by an incredibly immersive Kristen Stewart, in the best performance of her career.
Stephen Knight’s script does not knock viewers over their heads with the media constructors the princess of the people mythos. Knights and Larraín are too clever to use such simple tools. Instead, they find more subtle ways to wrap their legend into a realistic narrative. Spencer opens with Diana, without driver or bodyguard, drives herself to Sandringham House. The confident Royal loses his way, finally deciding to stop asking for directions. In front of normal people, she assumes a shy, somewhat vulnerable disposition. Her eyes wobbled as her head tilted to the side. The scene is the first contour in Stewart’s stratification of her: the differences between the private princess and the public.
This is a biopic acutely busy analyzing Diana psychology, and specifically her many demons. But not in a salty way. As she walks to the Sandringham Estate, she sees a morning star standing in the middle of a field, wearing her father’s red cloak. (In real life, her father, John Spencer, died three months after Christmas from a heart attack.) She goes to take off her clothes, hoping they will be cleaned. Diana grew up on the Queen’s estate in the Park House, making her trip to the Christmas holidays both a heartfelt homecoming and a sad duty, which caused a prosperity of grief to affect her in varied fashions.
Diana also connects with her predecessor in the film. Equerry Major Gregory (a punchable Timothy Spall), a nasty Scottish war veteran who now narcs for the Queen, pleads with Diana to conform to tradition. A “game” has visitors weighing themselves at the start upon arrival to see who gains the most weight over the holidays. This tradition causes Diana insecurity with her weight on the surface. And after finding a book about Anne Boleyn on her bed, possibly placed there by Major Gregory, she dreams of the distant family, the second wife of Henry VIII, who was beheaded after misbehaving with her. Between the coat and the ghost of Anne Boleyn, Diana is drawn to her now doomed childhood home.
Who could have shut Diana down to feel trapped? Other than her tailor and best friend Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and the likeable chef Darren (Sean Harris), she is quite isolated. But again, Larraín is too smart to limit Spencer to cut Diana’s relationship with the other members of the royal family around her, or even her relationship with Charles and his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles. Instead, he draws the focus by showing how Diana tries to protect her boys from the royal archaic, closed traditions. But vis-à-vis dominant men like Charles and Major Gregory, along with the infamous protocol of real estate and their eating disorder, she can barely protect herself. The mania she feels makes her Christmas vacation more of a struggle for survival than an escape.
Jonny Greenwood’s score opens up like classic British, then morphs into a confusing symphony. Following a similar aesthetic Jackie, Cinematographer Claire Mathon (Atlantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) captures Diana with intrusive neighbors, her lens peering over the princess’ heartbreaking facial expressions. Mathon is also interested in the disturbingly manipulative characteristics of the property: the uniform garden, the precise movements of the strict servants, and the carefully prepared food and clothing, which are in contrast to Diana’s free fall. Meanwhile, the costume work of the legendary Jacqueline Durran covers one of the biggest hits of Diana’s famous outfits, with an evocative array of fashions that often speak to her mental state.
But Stewart’s extraordinary performance is what brings together Diana Lore and Larraín’s conception of her, creating a fluid version of the princess that is not dependent on broad or precise instincts. Stewart claps her body to make Diana realize her nervousness, tilts her head in a familiar way and gets the princess’ voice perfect. But beyond that, their performance comes to the fore. Stewart’s eyes floated like switch leaves through the grass. In each look, another victim claims, showing either a kind of brilliance or shyness, depending on the situation. It is her eyes that jump her over the line of performance to a totally lived aura. There’s never a moment when it’s Kristen Stewart as Diana. She is Diana.
The film has two highlights, one of which comes when Diana finally makes it back to her childhood. She is friendly and hallucinating, and Mathon’s camera closes in on her even more dangerously. This is where Jackie The editor Sebastián Sepúlveda shines, ensures a lively and contemporary editing of her life up to the moment. The other highlight flies the tenor of the film from grim to festive. Considering the film’s credibility, and how deep into despair it descends, the rapid rise towards Revelry should feel maudlin, almost as if Larraín is cheating on 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 pursuing the familiar beats of her life, is not accustomed to watching the classic biopic audience. But it deserves the inventive, iconoclastic film Diana.
Spencer will arrive in American theaters on November 5, 2021.