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Spencer

Kristen Stewart turns in a career-best performance as the People's Princess in this bold and enthralling slice-of-life biopic.
By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022
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UPDATE, March 18, 2022: Spencer is available to stream via Prime Video.

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With two-plus decades as an actor to her name, Kristen Stewart hasn't spent her career as a candle in the wind. Her flame has both blazed and flickered since her first uncredited big-screen role in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas but, by Elton John's definition, she's always known where to cling to. After jumping from child star to Twilight heroine and then one of the savviest talents of her generation, she's gleaned where to let her haunting gaze stare so piercingly that it lights up celluloid again and again, too. Spencer joins Stewart's resume after weighty parts in Clouds of Sils MariaPersonal ShopperCertain Women and Seberg, and has her do something she's long done magnificently: let a world of pain and uncertainty seep quietly from her entire being. The new regal drama should do just that, of course, given its subject — but saying that director Pablo Larraín has cast his Diana well, pitch-perfect head tilt and all, is a royal understatement.

Larraín also trusts himself well, making the kind of movie he's made three times now — not that Jackie, Ema and Spencer are carbon copies — and knowing that he does it phenomenally. Both essaying real-life figures and imagining fictional characters, the Chilean filmmaker keeps being drawn to tales about formidable women. His eponymous ladies could all be called strong female leads, but Larraín's features unpack what strength really means in various lights. Like her predecessors in the director's filmography, Diana faces searing traumas, plus ordinary and extraordinary struggles. She scorches away tradition, and values letting her own bulb shine bright over being stuck in others' shadows. Viewers know how this story will end, though, not that Spencer covers it, and Larraín is just as exceptional at showing how Diana's candle started to burn out.

The year is 1991, the time is Christmas and the place is the Queen's (Stella Gonet, Breeders) Sandringham Estate, where the Windsors converge for the holidays (yes, Spencer is now prime seasonal viewing). As scripted by Peaky Blinders and Locked Down's Steven Knight, the choice of period puts Diana in one of the most precarious situations of her then decade-long married life, with her nuptials to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing, The Lost Daughter) turning into an "amicable separation" within 12 months. Spencer's focus is on three days, not all that defined the People's Princess' existence before or after, but she can't stop contemplating her past and future. The Sandringham grounds include the house where Diana was born, and those happier recollections — and time spent now with her children (debutants Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) — give her a glow. Alas, all the monarchical scrutiny simmers her joy to ashes, unsurprisingly. 

Larraín is one of today's great detail-oriented filmmakers, a fact that glimmers in his approach to Spencer — and did in Jackie, too. Both character studies let snapshots speak volumes about broader lives and the bigger narratives around them, including when poised as "a fable from a true tragedy" as the title card notes here. 'Poised' is one word for this fictionalised imagining of real events, which builds its dramas in an immaculate chamber, lets heated emotions bounce around as it tears into privilege and power, and allows audiences to extrapolate from the meticulous minutiae. Specific tidbits are oh-so-telling, such as the demand that Sandringham's guests hit the scales upon arrival and leaving, their weight gains deemed a sign of how much they enjoyed themselves. Bolder flourishes are just as exacting, like the way the place is lensed to make the Princess of Wales resemble a doll being toyed with in a playhouse, as well as a Jack Torrance substitute trapped in her own Overlook Hotel The Shining-style.

Often boldly and claustrophobically ominous in its vibe and visuals, and deliberately so — as equerry Major Alistair Gregory, overseer of every move made at the estate, Timothy Spall (The Last Bus) perfects the eerie mood — Spencer can be called a horror film and the label fits. Terror, distress, contempt and cruelty are all part of Diana's Sandringham experience, the first two emanating from the former Lady Spencer and the latter pair frequently flung her way. This is a slice-of-life biopic as well, obviously, and also a Princess of Wales time capsule thanks to its exquisite staging and costuming. Larraín does leap into lingering memories occasionally, which lets the movie survey an array of its central figure's famed outfits with a keen eye. The appearance of things, be it her crumbling marriage or herself, is the key tenet she's being told to uphold, after all — but the decreed version decided by others, not her own, down to dictating exactly what she's permitted to wear and when.

Spencer's nightmare of not being able to be one's self, especially under an unyielding spotlight, sees Diana's inner turmoil manifest in multiple ways. Her bulimia and self-harming speak of tainting appearances, and forcefully; her hallucinations of fellow ill-fated royal Anne Boleyn and her general anxiety make her fragile emotional state plain. She's introduced getting lost en route, then earning ire for being late, rebellious and just someone the Windsors must deal with — and the anguish that Stewart wears like a second skin is given ample origins. Spencer's magnetic lead portrayal is smartly underplayed, though, even as the heft of Diana's evident woes, and fight for survival amid the ghosts of history, fame and expectation, fills rooms. In fact, Stewart is all the more powerful for her fine-tuned vulnerability and introspection than something bigger would've been, as past examples have shown. The Crown has done Diana well so far, but the less remembered about 2013's Naomi Watts-starring Diana, the better.

Every technical choice on Larraín's part beams brightly, too — or, if dim, it's by design. Spencer looks the grey 90s British drama picture, with cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) baking in grey tones even when the hue isn't visible. Continuing to do stellar things with tension-dripping film scores, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood adds this in alongside The Power of the Dog to his recent standouts. Spencer does capture warm moments, including sympathetic rapports with some estate staff (with compelling turns from The Shape of Water's Sally Hawkins and The Green Knight's Sean Harris, both ever-reliable), but it also ensures that the rarity of such exchanges in Diana's life is heartbreakingly clear. The upbeat 80s single "All I Need Is a Miracle" might set a glorious closing note, but this is always an equally bold and sensitive — and enthralling — portrait of England's rose wilting not from the sunlight she craves, but from the royal inferno.

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