Spencer – Review

Directed by Pablo Larraín

Written by Steven Knight

Germany,Chile,UK/117mins/2021

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dance instructor, cleaner, patron, heir apparent and mother; Diana, Princess of Wales, was a woman under the scrutiny of multiple angles and facades. And quite often, it is seemingly forgotten that she was human. A figure of public fascination and an international icon, Diana’s life is as capitalised and adapted in media as her death.

Despite the fineries, Spencer is no ordinary biopic or placeholder whilst you await the next season of The Crown. This evocative “fable from a true tragedy” projects trial and trauma through an artful lens, stripping back the regalia and injecting a discomforting psychological aspect to Diana’s last Christmas before her divorce from the Prince of Wales. This spurious spin on the mythos of Diana finds itself lavished in seductive energy, suspense, humour, and an unnerving presence.

This is because Steven Knight’s script is not a tabloid splurge of anecdotal tropes, nor is it a twisted biography laced with republican jabs or stances. Spencer is not an ordinary film by any standing and instead leans into the avenues of a psychological drama (skirting the edges of horror), with biographical elements as tent-pegs to remain within the boundaries of believability. 

Engorging the genre of historical drama, Pablo Larraín continues to forge ahead with captivating movements with fictionalised elements of contemporary figures, such as his 2016 work with Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy. The storytelling is masterful, and the categorical success of Larrain’s film lies not with the accuracy of Diana’s life or grand revelations documentaries obsess over, but a rather revolutionary immersive study of inner turbulence and projecting the contemporary mythos of “the people’s princess” with its visual and metaphorical language.

Can you taste it? It’s an old friend: Oscar-bait. And this isn’t even a remark towards Kristen Stewart’s stalwart dedication to performance, but rather within Jacqueline Durran’s costume replications. Diana was recognisable for her fashion as she was charity work, and the choices in the film’s catalogue of her numerous gowns, coats and dresses all contain a specificity of sorts. Heritage items to connect with the past, suffocating trinkets to replicate the present, and of course the more familiar causal wear and infamous black dresses of her final years.

But of Spencer’s performances, audiences biased of Kristen Stewart’s talents, Spencer will likely come as the actress “finest” or “coming-out” performance – when those familiar with her recent works Personal Shopper or Clouds of Sils Maria will recognise her capability. Mercifully, for an American taking the role of Diana Spencer, the dedication and respect Stewart captures are remarkable, not only in dialect but in the mild-hunching self-conscious ‘pixie’ nature tabloids leapt ravenously. 

Evenly matched, the ever-present Timothy Spall as Major Alistar Gregory, assigned to ensure everything goes according to plan, Spall matches Stewart’s nervous energy with a heightened performance attributing to Diana’s anxieties. And though minor parts, newcomer Jack Nielen makes for a sympathetic Prince William, while Sally Hawkins and Sean Harris offer a shred of compassion for Diana as her dresser and the estate’s chef.

Stylized, Claire Mathon’s cinematography never pushes general audiences to exert more than necessary, though there is a subtle art to the angle formula to distort the traditional drama format. Overhead shots and Kubrick lengthy corridors all instil an uncomfortable aura. And when combined with Amy Manson’s surprising appearance as a spectral role, blur the lines evermore for audiences.

And in aiding this with one of the year’s finest soundtrack compositions, Jonny Greenwood mashes together an opulence fitting of Royalty with sharpness and distinctly unnatural twang of horror undertones.

In years to come, there would be little surprise in finding Spencer in the chapters of study; a fascinating dissection of the torture, both self-inflicted and otherwise, of a woman and mother, who to this day outshines the jewellery which once weighed her down. And whilst few can claim to recognise the authenticity in the various performances of Diana, there is a profound sense that Stewart has come the closest and is likely to find something shiny in the near future to rival any crown. 

Review published for The Wee Review

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