[Slight spoiler warning]
Pablo Larraín is no stranger to films centering high-profile political women, shifting from the American royalty of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie to directing the high profile Stephen King adaptation Lisey’s Story. It makes sense that Spencer is like a dirty marriage of both, an amalgamation of horror and biopic with an alternate history flair. It’s a stunning film marked by a career-best performance from Kristen Stewart, and one of the finest films of the year.
We begin Spencer in 1991. December. Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) has long been in a stilted romance with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), all coming to a head in a tense Christmas party at the Queen’s estate. Diana has long been the subject of public scrutiny—she’s beloved but a magnet for paparrazi, and that makes the Royal Family nervous. For Diana, a woman who wants to be free, open, anything other than a constant object of external visibility and internal scrutiny, that’s hell.
The film boasts two extremely strong elements that carry it well. First, it’s an incredible rich performance from Stewart. She truly embodies the increasingly strained Princess; a loving mother who just wants to have a different life, a life she’s denied. Stewart has been stacking up exceptional and diverse performances for some time, and her turn as Diana is easily her career best. It’s raw, emotionally wide ranging, and most importantly she loses herself in the performance in a truly impressive way. Add to it Larraín’s confident direction and Spencer is an incredible journey.
Larraín chooses to reflect Diana’s inner struggle through eschewing traditional biopic conventions and shifting genres into horror terrain. The longer Diana feels subject to these myriad pressures, the more harried she becomes, the more frantic the pacing, and the tighter and more claustrophobic the direction. It’s brilliant. Together, the effect is a lovely but novel genre pivot into new territory. And when the end hits and takes some unexpected directions, it’s a welcome and unexpected shift into surprises I won’t spoil.
At times the claustrophobia becomes somewhat too chaotic, and there’s a continual return to Anne Boleyn that’s thematically relevant but heavy-handed in execution… at key moments it threatens to slide into surrealism that doesn’t quite work (especially in a particular scene in her old home). At the same time, these issues don’t outshine a fantastic performance and solid direction choices.
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Altogether Spencer is an exceptional film, a truly novel approach to the idea of a Princess Diana biopic. It effectively imagines royal pressure as a horror film, besides an incredible performance from Stewart. Frankly, it’s incredible—and a theatrical must-watch for the full experience. It will be a big part of the Oscar conversation.
Spencer is available this weekend in theaters.