Awards season is heating up, and yes, I fully realize it is only September. However, I feel 100% confident in saying that Spencer is one of the year’s best films. As a filmmaker, Pablo Larraín’s work isn’t for everyone, but even if you don’t like his films, it is hard to deny that all of his projects have a very distinct look and style. Spencer is arguably Larraín’s most accessible work to date, yet I still believe it will divide audiences.
Spencer takes place over the course of three days. The film begins on Christmas Eve and ends on Boxing day. Diana, played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart, yearns to live the life she once lived before becoming the Princess of Wales. Over the next three days, we see how Diana is treated like a prisoner in her own home. Every single thing that she does is questioned or criticized. Every meal is planned, every outfit is picked out, and every room in the house is monitored. We see that Diana has reached her breaking point and is looking for a way out. Does it happen? Well, you need to see Spencer find out.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, Larraín isn’t afraid of challenging his audience and making them feel uncomfortable. Spencer is chock full of mood and atmosphere. The iconic Sandringham Estate serves as the setting for most of the film, but it is not the glorious residence that we as viewers know it as. Instead, Sandringham is a scary place. One that is cold and unpleasant. It functions like a factory where the same thing happens like clockwork, and everyone on the staff follows orders as though they are robots rather than human beings. It is the perfect setting for a horror movie, and ultimately Spencer is a horror movie.
Kudos to Steven Knight and Larraín for creating a film about Princess Diana that hasn’t been done before. I remember that before seeing this film, many people were comparing this film to Netflix’s The Crown. These two projects may focus on Princess Diana, but they are nothing alike. Spencer is a character study showing the dark side of being in the public eye, while The Crown is more traditional in its approach of highlighting the Diana that we know and love.
Kristen Stewart’s work as an actress is one that I have admired for years. Her early roles in films like Panic Room and Speak struck a chord with me, and I have been an avid supporter ever since. I say this because many people often claim that one can’t be critical if you like an actor, actress, or filmmaker. This isn’t the case with me. I can fully admit that not every film that Stewart has been in has been a home run. I thought Seberg was terrible and found Underwater to be serviceable as best. I have no problem admitting when something doesn’t work, even if I greatly admire the actor or filmmaker.
That being said, there will be no other performance this year that will be as good as Stewart is as Princess Diana. Stewart transforms into Princess Diana and not the Diana that we know from television, but a never-before-seen version that Knight and Larraín created in this film. Stewart plays the part perfectly. She makes the story of Diana her own as she disappears into this performance. As I said above, I have enjoyed the majority of Stewart’s filmography, but there isn’t any doubt in my mind that this is her crowning achievement. This masterclass in acting will be widely discussed and repeatedly celebrated over the next seven months.
This performance is special because it is very parallel to Stewart’s own life as an actress. You can see a lot of her in Diana and vice versa. Stewart gives us an inside look into the mind of Diana and what it is like to live a life that is constantly being monitored and controlled by others. She paints this intimate portrait of Princess Diana, one that stands out from any other interpretation that we’ve seen. We feel her pain and her frustration. Although she completely chose this life, we see that it is not exactly what she dreamed it would be.
There are several great scenes in Spencer that stand out. One of my favorites is when Diana sits at the dinner table and rips off her pearl necklace because she feels like it is choking her. We see the pearls break apart all over the table, and some of them go into her soup. Instead of picking them out, she proceeds to eat them. This is a horrifying scene to watch unfold, but it tells the viewer exactly how Diana is feeling at that moment. Another great scene involves Diana interacting with her two sons as they play pretend. This is one of the film’s lighter moments, but it showcases that Diana cares deeply about her sons and wants nothing more for them to live a normal life outside of the public eye.
While most of Spencer relies on Stewart’s performance, it should be noted that every actor who appears in the film is pretty terrific, even though most of them only have 5 to 10 minutes of screen time. Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, and Jack Farthing appear and are pretty damn great. My favorite supporting role was Sally Hawkins as Maggie, one of the estate’s staff members. The chemistry between Stewart and Hawkins was spot-on, and I would love to see them together again in a future project.
The technical and artistic aspects of Spencer are just as impressive as the performances. The cinematography is stunning, the score is haunting, and the costumes are impeccable. I love the way that Larraín moves the camera and how he shoots. There are several wide shots and close-up shots, and each of them sets up the scene. There are also a lot of scenes where the camera sits there. These particular scenes make the viewer feel as though they are trapped in the room with Diana. They almost make you, as the viewer, feel claustrophobic.
Spencer lives up to the hype. This is a phenomenal film and easily one of the best 2021 has to offer. Kristen Stewart delivers a tour-de-force performance that will undoubtedly result in an Oscar nomination. Spencer is the type of character study I love to see. One that challenges while being intoxicating. This is one of the few films that I seriously won’t mind talking about over and over again for the next seven months—Bravo to all involved.