Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: Pablo Larrain
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins
By Calum Cooper
Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer” (2021) is so much more than just another biopic. In fact it feels a lot closer to something like Oliver Assayas’s “Personal Shopper” (2016) or even Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). Utilising elements of psychological thrillers as well as conventional biographic dramas, Larrain presents a film that’s both deeply empathetic and unapollogetically scathing.
The film takes place over the Christmas holidays of an unspecified year. Diana (Kristen Stewart), the Princess of Wales, is on her way to celebrate the holidays with the Royal Family at Sandringham House. But her years within nobility have taken its toll on her mental health. Her questioning of royal practices is treated with disdain, and rumours of extramarital affairs are turning the relationship between her and her husband Charles (Jack Farthing) cold, although it’s implied that it was never especially warm to begin with. Diana plays the royal game as best she can, but her free will is viewed as dangerously unorthodox. As such, this year will determine her future within the royal family.
“Spencer” is fairly light when it comes to plot. One could argue it borders on aristocratic slice-of-life. Yet there are a lot of cogs turning in this machine. Underneath all the glitz and glamour is an ugly dark side – one where privilege is as much a cage as it is a declaration of rambunctious wealth or finery. Being part of the royal family has its perks, however dated, but there is also a feeling of trapped destiny – in which your life has already been mapped out and you have no true say in it. It’s almost like watching your own life on the sidelines.
“Stewart’s performance is a staggering one that does so much more than merely replicate the looks and mannerisms of her historical icon.”
This is where Diana is mentally throughout the film. But these feelings are exemplified greatly by her company and surroundings. Sandringham House is close to the boarded up remains of her childhood home, the distant relic bringing back bittersweet memories. The Royal Family, outside of her children, treat her as the oddball. Monarchs and servants alike, bar her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and the royal chef (Sean Harris), maliciously gossip about her behind her back and then feign concern to her face. Any suggestion Diana makes – from what dress she wears to dinner to whether her own bedroom curtains are drawn or not – is treated as the height of childishness, with the royal planner (Timothy Spall in a brilliant performance dripping with supreme snobbery) watching over her every move.
Diana feels more like an accessory than a member of this family, and this is where the film’s tone and thematic strength comes into play. During her stay, she starts to draw parallels between herself and Anne Boleyn. So much so that “Spencer” starts to become something of a haunting film. Fate, customs, and toxic aristocracy excused as tradition looms over her, threatening to cut her to ribbons if she does not adhere to what’s been predetermined. The past, present and future all accumulate into one malevolent ghost that plagues her mind and threatens to destroy her. These are deeply disturbing concepts that cause Diana emotional, and even physical, torture as she feels unable to escape from the confines of nobility.
Twinning with this tone is confident direction from Larrain, and masterful cinematography from Claire Mathon, who we can all agree is one of the best in her field. Both show off the colourful privilege high status brings, but both are dripping with melancholy beneath. You can almost feel the chill in the air, as Diana struggles to wear her royal mask in the face of such pompous scrutiny. Yet Larrain remains wholly empathetic, and Steven Knight’s script is certain to include moments of Diana’s true self, such as one especially heartwarming moment where she plays with her sons in the middle of the night – a raw moment of familial connection that isn’t bogged down by the expectations of royalty, but is portrayed simply as a mother playing with her children.
“It is a hypntoic, devastating ode to motherhood and self-love, as well as a staunch middle finger to the barbaric practices of machiavellian institutions.”
All of this and more works in the favour of “Spencer”, but this is one of those films where its central performance carries most of the dramatic weight. And Kristen Stewart is completely transformative. She slips into the role flawlessly, becoming unrecognisable in the process. Yet she also carries a captivating blend of sadness, fear, self-loathing, and untapped resolve. Stewart’s performance is a staggering one that does so much more than merely replicate the looks and mannerisms of her historical icon. This is the kind of acting where you forget you’re watching an actor.
“Spencer” is a gripping feature with a lot more going on narratively, thematically, and even artistically than its premise would suggest. It’s drawn many parallels with Larrain’s previous biopic “Jackie” (2016), with some saying they make compatible companion pieces. But where “Jackie” felt somewhat hollow, “Spencer” feels dynamic, assured, and sympathetic. It is a hypnotic, devastating ode to motherhood and self-love, as well as a staunch middle finger to the barbaric practices of machiavellian institutions, which feels more apt than ever given the monarchy’s recent controversies, and growing irrelevance.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea – to borrow a classic English term – with its pacing and choice of storytelling already proving somewhat divisive. Even the mere fact that it’s about the British monarchy will be enough to draw justifiable scoffs. But I was blown away by it, with its gorgeous filmmaking, compelling subtext, and utterly astounding lead performance from Stewart. Safe to say the race for that Best Actress Oscar has well and truly begun.