One of the most anticipated biopics to be released this year was Pablo Larraín’s Spencer which is a new take on the biopic genre. Inspired by Diana, Princess of Wales and her life in the Royal Family before her divorce, Spencer is a fictional account of Diana’s time at Sandringham during Christmas where she spends time with the Firm, including the Queen. Starring Kristen Stewart as Diana as well as a slew of stars in supporting roles such as Timothy Spall as the fictional Equerry Major Alistair Gregory and Sally Hawkins as Maggie, a fictional Dresser, Spencer may not follow the conventions of biopics but the events are not what Larraín wants us to focus on and rather the emotions as well as physical and mental trauma that comes from Diana’s rare circumstance. Just like Larraín’s previous film, Jackie which explores Jackie Kennedy’s life a week following the assassination of her husband, President Kennedy, Spencer takes place over a short period of time and allows us to view the subject when thrown in uncomfortable situations as well as what she is like behind the scenes.
It is no secret that Spencer has generated a lot of controversy due to its approach as well as the accuracy of the events. The first words that appear on the screen is “A fable from a true tragedy” immediately striking a subtle, darker undertone that seeks to foreshadow Diana’s life and tragic death. Directed by Larraín and based on a script written by Steven Knight, Spencer is happy to venture into its otherworldly elements as it incorporates visions of Anne Boleyn, one of Diana’s ancestors as well as an astonishing dream sequence that runs through some of Diana’s most iconic outfits. Although it may not be an accurate account, we get a sense of Diana’s past and present as well as the glooming undertones of the future that awaits her.
Kristen Stewart is nothing short of spectacular as Diana and this performance will most likely see Stewart gain her first Oscar nomination. Stewart’s performance feels much more than a basic impression. Even when Diana thinks she is alone, there is always a sense that there is someone listening to her and watching her at all times. The performance is a reaction to the claustrophobia that Diana feels as every move she makes is closely observed even down to the clothes she wears and the way she walks when in public. Stewart encapsulates the hopelessness and claustrophobia that Diana feels when among the Firm as well as showing that hopeful side when she is with her children and dreaming of a life away from the Royals. Diana’s story has become a hugely popular source of inspiration as of late as she has been incorporated into the hit Netflix series The Crown and a newly released Broadway musical looks into her life as the “People’s Princess”. Spencer provides us with glimpses of Diana’s personal and private struggles including her experiences with bulimia as well as the mental and physical toll that being a Royal has. Stewart’s Diana aims to find an escape as she reflects on who she was before her marriage and looks ahead to the future where she can forge her own identity.
In support we see Timothy Spall as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory who is loosely based on David Walker. Having been tasked with keeping a close eye on Diana due to the amount of publicity and attention she has been receiving from the media, Alistair grows fond of her and tries to steer her down the right path without compromising himself. Initially it seems that Alistair is just a tool for the Firm but he sees Diana for the human she is and goes out of his way to try and stop her from going down the same path as her ancestor, Anne Boleyn. Spall’s performance is gripping and unpredictable and the scenes he shares with Stewart are full of tension as he keeps her in line against her wishes.
Sally Hawkins is endearing as Diana’s Dresser, Maggie, and it’s such a shame that she isn’t in the film more. Maggie seems to be the only person that Diana can trust and express herself with. Even in such a small role, Hawkins has such a presence that clearly impacts the main character in such a way that her sudden absence brings out fear in Diana. The scene in which Maggie and Diana sit on the beach and reflect on whether the former spoke ill of the latter is a clear display of how claustrophobic life in the Firm can be, even for those who simply work for them.
When it comes to cinematography, Claire Mathon has knocked it out of the park this year providing the camera work for Spencer as well as Céline Sciamma’s 2020 beautiful coming of age film, Petite Maman (you can read the review here). Despite these films being completely different in tone and topic, Mathon adapts accordingly while still providing a dreamlike quality in both that elevates the film from its reality-driven roots. Mathon’s approach feels as though the camera is moving naturally and doesn’t feel forced while also allowing the audience to really see these different sides to Diana in such a short space of time. It is thanks to Mathon’s ability to blend reality and fiction that Diana’s own reality and fiction become blended into one as she begins to feel the pressure and claustrophobia. The contrasts between the dark and trapped settings of the house with the natural light and openness of the outdoors further displays Diana’s inner conflict.
The score is another brilliant aspect of the film and is composed by no other than the incredible Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood’s score provides an underlayer of horror and tension to the film that highlights the darker undertones of the film’s subject. The piece that plays during dinner as Diana imagines herself eating the pearls from a necklace that Charles bought for both her and Camilla speaks volumes to the trauma that she is facing and the hopelessness that Diana feels as there is no solution to the problem that would benefit her.
Spencer is not a film that should be taken as a literal account but as a “fable” that perfectly displays the emotional turmoil and physical and mental struggle that Diana faced. Larraín and Stewart are a match made in heaven as their Diana is one that sees a silver lining amongst the hopelessness. It is sure to receive a fair amount of attention this awards season, especially for Stewart’s performance and Mathon’s cinematography. Visually stunning and filled with captivating performances and direction, Spencer is much more than a standard biopic and dares to look deeper into the subject’s psyche with great results.
What did you think of Spencer? Let me know in the comments below!