Review: Spencer

Directed by Pablo Larraín and written by Steven Knight, during her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana decides to leave her marriage to Prince Charles. Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Laura Benson and Sally Hawkins.

If you’re heading into this expecting simply a drama, you will discover something entirely different. Pablo Larraín has created the unexpectedly unusual, Spencer has a distinct style and unique atmosphere. It forms an uncomfortably tense air, it nearly wanders into the realm of horror in how succinctly its style portrays Diana’s (Kristen Stewart) perspective: trapped, powerless, lonely, frustrated, with the consequences of each spiralling inwards. Part of that intensity comes from Johnny Greenwood’s score, it adds a powerful orchestral note that sets the scenes perfectly on edge, it plays with being excessive but never becomes so. There’s a quality to Larraín’s direction which almost steps outside of reality, and occasionally does entirely, blending the scenes together with a dreamlike feel. It’s not quite chaotic but blurs the lines enough to feed further into the intensity of Diana’s struggle to reconcile the harsh truth of her life.

The way that Larraín frames his shots is particularly effective, it emphasises her isolation terrifically. It’s expertly careful about how and when Diana is ever in full view with the royal family, they’re kept separate, rarely on the same side and always at odds both thematically and visually. Interestingly, there are even sequences which feel similar to the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, touching upon a common creation of potent, frenzied moments, pushing the boundaries of reality. One particular scene of Diana in front of a throng of paparazzi is so well shot it impeccably captures that feeling of her being thrown to the wolves, with no-one to protect her. It’s such a simple moment but shocking to watch. All of its visual brilliance is then supported by some of the best costume work of recent years, every frame is striking, but more so because of the work of Jacqueline Durran (Little Women, Anna Karenina).

Its intensity is then lovingly blended with the writing’s tender moments, particularly those of Diana with her sons (Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry) and with Maggie (Sally Hawkins). They become these little pockets of joy among the struggle and pressure, making them all the more moving and entirely bittersweet when viewed through the lens of knowing what her future holds. It truly captures the unenviable strain placed upon Diana, even in this fairly brief selection of days, you can easily relate to how any person, no matter their strength, would likely go mad. The story holds a palpable sadness, even in lighter scenes, it forever lingers and is at times difficult to watch.

You have to imagine that deciding to take on a role such as this, especially as an American actor, is particularly difficult. There’s always going to be an extra level of scrutiny with such an iconic figure but Kristen Stewart is unsurprisingly up to that challenge. It feels as though her career up until this point has provided her with all the experience she needed to portray the different sides to this character. Not only does she provide an absolutely phenomenal performance in Diana’s intense moments but there’s a flighty, casual, jovial and sarcastic side to her, it’s a delicate balance to create but Stewart flawlessly achieves it. It’s a commanding performance which connects to its audience with a formidable strength, compellingly drawing out your sympathy and urge to protect, as it decidedly breaks your heart.

While the film centres around Kristen Stewart’s performance, its ensemble is not to be forgotten. Sally Hawkins is wonderful as Maggie, the connection which the two of them create is so natural, caring and sweet, particularly in its latter moments, it’s a delight to watch them share the screen. Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry are superb as William and Harry, their moments with Stewart reflect most the desire for some form of normality, how underneath it all, they’re just a mother and her children. Their scenes together are some of the most memorable of the film, especially in those where you feel her sons having their eyes opened to her cries for help. Timothy Spall is an unusual presence here, coming across for a large part as quite imposing and, in honesty, creepy but his character follows an interesting path. While there’s also a whole host of an impressive cast here, one not to be ignored is Laura Benson, it’s a tumultuous relationship as she replaces Diana’s dresser and it feeds into the story’s development extremely well.

Spencer is powerful, intense, unexpected and led by an extraordinary performance from Kristen Stewart who creates a delicate balance in her portrayal of Diana. Pablo Larraín took what was already a heart-breaking story and pushed it to another level of piercing poignancy. Steven Knight’s writing works perfectly with Larraín’s direction, coming together to create a powerful film filled with tenderness, excruciating tension and a viewing experience that you won’t forget.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯✯

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2021 –
Coming to UK cinemas 5th November

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