Venice 2021: Kristen Stewart Soars as Princess Diana in 'Spencer'
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2021
"I hope your friend's wild horse was never tamed." Bravo! Bravo! This is the kind of "F you" to the Royal Family that I absolutely love to see. Spencer is Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín's latest English-language feature, similar in many ways to his film Jackie about JFK's wife Jackie O. Kennedy in the minutes and days following his assassination. But this time the focus is on the beloved Princess Diana, formerly known as Diana Spencer before she was married. It takes place entirely at a sprawling manor during the Christmas holiday in 1991, just before she announces her divorce from Prince Charles and makes a plan to leave the Royals and get her life back. And her freedom back. And her dignity back. And her sanity back. She has been missing that since joining them and it's clearly suffocating. Literally, as they force her to wear tight-fitting dresses all the time and stuff herself with decadent Christmas food. And figuratively, as she comes to realize how oppressive and controlling the Royal Family is and how she just has no freedom to be herself anymore.
The film opens with the subtitle "A Fable From a True Tragedy", with a witty screenplay written by Steven Knight. It's set in 1991 at Christmas time, beginning with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana driving her sports car into a dour, foggy gray countryside to spend her holidays at a sprawling royal manor. Featuring moments of fantasy and exaggeration and extravagance, as well as fanciful dialogue and fictional scenes of interactions with various staff working the ground, the camera follows Diana around as she not-so-subtly begins to crack and express her frustration with the traditions and limitations of being a part of England's Royal Family. Lead by Queen Elizabeth II, played by Stella Gonet in this film. The writing is exceptionally good, not only balancing the elements that play as a superb mockery of the ways of the Royal life, also balancing bits of humor and rage, mixed with dashes of madness and fury and cleverness. It gives Diana a chance to speak out and speak to us directly in ways she never had all before her life was tragically cut short.
Much of this expression comes from Kristen Stewart's impeccable performance as Diana. It's some of her finest work ever, that will undoubtedly be heralded as one of her most memorable roles. I'm admittedly not the biggest fan of her acting, sometimes it just feels like she's playing herself over and over (and I fully admit this is just my own subjective interpretation with a few of her films). But I was thoroughly impressed with her Diana performance in Spencer. By the end I was almost moved to tears. She OWNS this role. And she deserves all the accolades and awards that will be coming her way for this towering performance. She is speaking out about Diana's feelings and her breathlessness though the physicality, through her body movements and palpable frustration. It's not only the dialogue and her emotions that are expressive, there's so much being said by every glance and movement. This is distinctly Stewart's Diana and it's as convincing and entrancing as ever to watch her in this, tearing her way through the halls and messing with the Royals.
There is so much I can talk about with Spencer and how great the film is, how engaging it is as a work of art. It's a ravishing, exhilarating cinematic story about a woman who can't breathe, realizing she needs to break free. Composer Jonny Greenwood continues to prove he is one of the greatest composers of our time, producing another extraordinary score for his film. He's always incredible at producing scores that sound like nothing else yet have a unique personality that fits the film like a glove, and this features yet another near-perfect Greenwood creation. Then there's the cinematography, shot by DP Claire Mathon, fresh off of shooting the award-winning films Atlantique and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. As gorgeous as any film can be, and once again, uniquely attuned to the themes of the story, perfectly connected to the eerie atmosphere of this strange time and place in England. All of these filmmaking elements add to the splendor of the film.
I cackled, I smirked, I applauded loudly. Maybe even cheered a bit. The script is glorious and just so damn delicious. All the food! All the visual metaphors! I couldn't bear the dread, ohhhh the DREAD. You can feel it in every last frame, knowing what's coming years later, it's impossible to ignore that impending fate. As viewers we know it's there to taunt us, even though at the time she doesn't know what's coming. It's another film where it's considerably on-the-nose obvious at times, referencing death and Anne Boleyn, but very witty on-the-nose. A mostly worthwhile on-the-nose that should make you smirk and smile. I enjoyed every last second of Spencer, the score especially. I seriously enjoyed the brutal takedown of how annoyingly elegant and ridiculously traditional the Royal Family is, winking at us to stop caring at all about any of their ways or importance. We know better now, Diana has shown us. This is my favorite Pablo Larraín film since No, and one of his best cinematic creations in an already exceptional filmography so far. It's even better than Jackie.