Written by Taylor Baker
Neon is seeking to follow up its Parasite success with Oscar 2021 hopeful Spencer. Which details a few days in the life of Princess Diana played by Kristen Stewart over a Christmas holiday. It’s Pablo Larraín’s second project of the year following his 8 episode 400 minute adaptation of the Stephen King novel Lisey’s Story, which starred Julianne Moore alongside Clive Owen, a welcome sight to those fond of Children of Men. Larraín is on the surface repeating the process that led to Jackie, one of 2016’s best films which had arguably the best performance by a lead actress that year. It starred Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy following the death of her husband and president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Spencer, though it omages to the tragedy of Diana’s death, is instead interested in her life, uniqueness, spirit, and maddening situation. Our first glimpse of Diana as played by Stewart shows her lost driving by herself to the Christmas family gathering. At one point she pulls into a Fish and Chips restaurant and asks the cashier and everyone if they can tell her where she is. “There’s no signs.” She says defeatedly. It’s a charming introduction that not only puts us on her side but makes us love her, just a little bit.
The film proceeds forward with an abrasive encounter with Allistair Gregory played deviously well by Timothy Spall, whom most may know as Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail from the Harry Potter films. In which Diana must have her weight recorded before joining the family for sandwiches. We get the sense that Spall’s Gregory is a nefarious force, perhaps one of the many surrounding the royal family that we’ve all heard tell about. Diana’s dresser Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins seems to be a lone voice of friendship in the callous halls of Windsor until she is unceremoniously and without warning sent back to London.
It’s little moments like this and larger ones, such as when her curtains are sewn together or she must put on the same pearls her husband bought for his mistress that we feel frustration and helplessness alongside her. Her very identity seems quashed by the routine and demands of being a royal when all she seems to want is her father’s worn coat and her boys. It’s no wonder to us as an audience as the film continues why she would resort to cutting herself an instance or purging herself in another. She seems to lack control over everything, so she’s asserting order where she can.
Larraín’s team is comprised of top talent working cohesively toward one vision. Jonny Greenwood serves as composer of the film, his score underlays the film with emotionality. Timed perfectly to build anticipation, and where appropriate suspicion. Claire Mathon who recently collaborated with Mati Diop on Atlantics and Celine Sciamma on both Petite Maman and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is cinematographer. Using depth of field and exterior landscapes to enormous effect. And if that wasn’t enough Larraín reteams with editor Sebastían Sepúlveda for their fourth collaboration.
Spencer as Larraín tells us at the very beginning before it starts is “A fable from a true tragedy.” Which cleverly divorces itself of the need to be as accurate and flawless in detail as Jackie had been and audiences would doubtlessly have demanded. Its interest and success lies in watching Stewart turn in arguably her best performance, which enthralls and affects equally. This performance is one of our eras finest, it’s asides with Sean Harris’s Chef Darren and Hawkins’s Maggie are rueful moments of joy that don’t seem cheapened by fictionalization, they instead seem like flourishes that bring Stewart’s depiction of Diana the person to life. Despite all the film’s dourness when Diana comes to mind I’ll think of her as she was at the end of this film, looking into a canal with her boys behind her eating fried chicken.
Spencer is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on Letterboxd, Twitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.