'Spencer' review: Kristen Stewart mesmerizes in haunting portrait of Princess Diana
Courtesy of NEON
Right out of the gate, from the title card that says “a fable from a true tragedy” to the armoured trucks rolling into Windsor castle on Christmas eve 1991 with Johnny Greenwood’s incredible score brooding underneath, Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” is a horror movie. It’s a startling, hard to stomach portrait of Princess Diana over the course of one weekend which perfectly encapsulates her trauma and struggles of trying to escape from the British Royal Family. Larraín, who gave a similar treatment to Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie,” spins the narrative of what happened on this much publicized moment in Diana’s life and finds the perfect muse in Kristen Stewart who is an absolute knockout from start to finish. Stewart finds balance in Diana’s quirks and mannerisms, playing several moments of anguish with heartbreaking integrity. Here’s a woman constantly scrutinized not only by members of the press, but the Royal family who when she’s late for dinner asks a confidant “Will they kill me?” and for a brief moment, you contemplate if they will.
Larraín plays with color palettes, angles, and tonal shifts as he constantly evolves Diana’s story to make the viewer feel uneasy. You can sense the walls closing in and “Spencer” never pushes boundaries or sugarcoats the proceedings. It's a compelling drama and Stewart plays Diana awkwardly and off balance, because that’s exactly how Diana was in real life. The actress effortlessly conveys the torment consuming her, shoulding the passive aggressive remarks from husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), who isn’t shown in a favorable light, and her majesty who hired Major Gregory (Timothy Spall - wonderful) to basically keep an eye on her. He literally lurks around every corner.
Diana has allies in the form of two servants (played exceptionally by Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins) but they’re wrapped into a system that won’t allow for change. This is how it is and Diana will have to either take it or leave it. And, for the majority of “Spencer,” it’s the “leave it” attitude that comes full circle as Diana boils and rages, seeing visions of her husband’s mistress and Anne Boleyn’s ghost. Of course, this manifests internally as Diana has become so programmed at bending the knee, these bursts, along with late night rendezvous in the courtyard, reinforce how deeply lost she is. She’s salvaged by her two sons, William and Harry (Jack Nielsen and Freddie Spry), who keep her sane in moments of dire uncertainty despite them knowing something is wrong with mommy.
The production design is flawlessly executed and Larraín cultivates those building blocks to further create his “haunted house” vision of the castle. If you ever considered venturing out to Sandringham, one might reevaluate their opinion as “Spencer” plays it like a never ending maze filled with dark chambers and creaky corridors. It’s hard to know who is hiding behind the wall or watching from a distance (including paparazzi trying to snap a glimpse of anything related to Diana). Steven Knight’s brilliant screenplay amplifies the setting and Clair Mathon’s cinematography further toys with conventions.
Equal parts thriller, biopic, and a seething indictment of unruly expectations placed upon those capitulated into the spotlight, “Spencer'' brings forth a cautionary tale. One surrounding mental illness, motherhood, and surviving. At times it can seem overwrought, a bit unnerving and silly, but then again so was the monarchy. Diana knew that all along, she just needed somebody to listen.
SPENCER is now playing in theaters.