Movie Review: Spencer

Spencer is a moody historical character portrait and unsettling psychological drama from Pablo Larraín. Starring Kristen Stewart as Diana Spencer, this sumptuous film is from the director behind Jackie. Your enjoyment of his Natalie Portman led character portrait of Jackie Kennedy serves as an excellent litmus test on whether Spencer is for you or not. Both semi-biographical historical films centre on iconic women, lavish lifestyles, zoom into a chapter of their lives and are accompanied by a sharp classical score that could have been partly inspired by Black Swan.

Instead of an expansive biographical drama over many decades, this film attempts to get an all-encompassing snapshot of Diana’s life over several days with flashbacks of her past.
This unconventional slice-of-life take will disappoint Diana fans if you’re expecting a more traditional, respectable and well-rounded chronicle of her life. Essentially a companion piece to Jackie, there’s a similar formula at play with a strong lead performance, moody atmosphere, ornate production design, an iconic backdrop, meticulous wardrobe with a score to enhance the psychological thriller undercurrent. Unfortunately, there’s an emotional distance and an alienating atmosphere that while exquisitely beautiful is mostly cerebral and lacking in heart and humour.

This stuffy treatment rarely takes away from Kristen Stewart’s transformative and career-best performance as Princess Diana. She captures Diana’s wistful yet gracious essence in several tumultuous days over a Christmas holiday with the royal family at their Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England. Playing like a low-key prison break it harps on familiar tones around Diana’s “conservatorship” type existence, bowing to etiquette, form, tradition and royal rule in a constant attempt to flee royal duty, the public eye and the media’s threat of breaking some new scandal. Struggling with mental-health, daydream elements intersperse this focussed biographical drama as Diana decides to escape the burdens associated with her royal duties and end her 10-year marriage to Charles.

spencer kristen stewart

“What if I’m not ready for my close up?”

Just like Natalie Portman, Larraín’s confidence and faith pays off once again as Stewart defies expectations to deliver a fine, nuanced and almost unrecognisable performance. Stewart is supported by a talented and uncompromising ensemble in Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris and Jack Farthing. Hawkins adds some much-needed life, Spall’s eagle-eyed turn represents a layer of obligation and duty, Harris is a go-between while Farthing’s cool distance is infrequent yet echoes his callous role in Poldark. The prime focus is on Stewart as Spencer who’s almost in every frame, which lessens the shared responsibility of the supporting cast, who are treated as underlings in every sense. Relying on the actors to fill in the gaps when it comes to character, Spencer does suffer a bit with its cold and stilted feel.

While this prestige picture looks and sounds the part, it’s rather alienating and struggles to garner emotional investment. Spencer’s compelling lead, cinematic finesse and accomplished cast escalate the film but there’s a frustrating disconnectedness when it comes to emotional resonance and engaging storytelling. The last 15 minutes do make a marked upswing when it comes to vitality and humanity with a happy ending sticker plastered on to leave on a positive note. However, as breathtakingly beautiful as it can be, living in Diana’s fractured mind is more harrowing than inviting as the darker side of Diana is explored on screen.

Spencer’s exquisite cinematography, daydream elements and stately residence keep it visually-captivating and even poetic but this artful film often feels stuffy and distant in spite of its slow-burning intimacy. Spencer is a technical masterpiece but unfortunately doesn’t have the emotional connectivity to transport audiences beyond the level of keeping up appearances. Much like Jackie’s arm’s length retelling, it just seems a pity that Larraín isn’t able to transcend such a majestic and clinical execution.

The bottom line: Stifled

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