Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins
Director: Pablo Larraín
Running Time: 111 mins
Spencer is a British film about Diana, Princess of Wales, as she navigates three days of Christmas festivities at the Sandringham Estate with the Royal Family, frustrated by the traditions and customs that surround her at every minute.
One of the most mesmerising films you’ll ever see, Spencer is an intoxicating psychodrama from start to finish, combining a brilliant lead performance from Kristen Stewart with spellbinding direction from Pablo Larraín, an exhilarating musical score, powerfully claustrophobic cinematography and an enthralling, thematically rich adaptation of the famous life of Diana, Princess of Wales.
I was absolutely floored by Spencer, which is on the same level as Larraín’s masterful Jackie in terms of its dramatic intensity and power. However, it’s important to know going in that Spencer isn’t a film there to give you a historical account of one Christmas that Diana spent with the in-laws.
This isn’t a factual biopic, but rather a ‘fable from a true tragedy’ as the film calls it at the beginning. The setting at Christmas at Sandringham simply serves as a canvas onto which we see the main themes of Diana’s life in the Royal Family painted out in abstract, imaginative and powerfully enthralling fashion.
So, don’t go in expecting pure historical fact, but do go in expecting one of the most uncomfortable, intense dramatic experiences you’re ever likely to have. Spencer almost takes things up a level from Jackie, going beyond overwhelming grief into a realm of near-madness, as we witness Diana driven to the verge of breaking down by the obtuse world in which she finds herself.
Throughout, the Sandringham Estate is painted as a kind of haunted house, shrouded in mist and full of eerie corridors where you almost never encounter the hosts of an infuriating Christmas. Coupled with the film’s intoxicating, claustrophobic cinematography and one of the most unsettling musical scores I have ever heard, it’s remarkable just how much Spencer feels like a true nightmare, like The Shining come to life.
And I’ll say it again – this is why you can’t watch this film as a typical biopic. Its overarching themes are certainly based in historical truth, but are moulded and adapted to fit into a brilliantly concise portrayal of some of the main anxieties that surrounded Diana at the height of her Royal fame.
The screenplay here is particularly sparing with dialogue, almost all of which uttered in breathy, timid whispers, as director Pablo Larraín leaves much of the film’s drama to be inferred from the exhilarating, ominous haunted house atmosphere, and the hypnotic lead performance from Kristen Stewart.
While there are moments where Stewart’s performance borders on showy, this is actually a very measured and very powerful performance that demands immense physicality from the actress, as she portrays Diana descending into a kind of madness, surrounded by repetitive, frustrating events that feel like a nightmare.
Much like Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie Kennedy, Stewart is full of intense emotion at every minute here, with facial expressions and a demeanour that resonate far more powerfully than any single line of dialogue. It’s not exactly what you would call the most historically accurate portrayal of Diana, but it’s a gripping, imaginative and bold amalgamation of many of her defining traits.
And with that, Spencer delivers exhilarating, intoxicating psychodrama of the highest order from start to finish. There may be a few moments in which the film’s allusions to the length and breadth of British royal history are a little on the nose, but this is an expertly-crafted film that certainly doesn’t hold back at any moment.
Intense, uncomfortable, and downright maddening at times, Spencer is a uniquely mesmerising vision of a troubled part of British royal history, featuring a staggering lead performance, ingenious direction, incredible music, spellbinding visuals and a masterful screenplay from start to finish. And that’s why I’m giving Spencer an 8.7 overall.