Spencer debuted at the Venice Film Festival. It will hit theaters on Nov. 5.
It may come as a surprise that the story that Spencer, the new Princess Diana biopic by Jackie director Pablo Larraín, most closely resembles is not The Crown, but Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After all, the psychodrama that stars Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in a career-best performance, is all about letting go of the past and moving forward to the future. But that’s a seemingly impossible task in the House of Windsor, where tradition is valued over everything, and Spencer shines in portraying that in Diana, going beyond her icon status and getting deep on the woman who struggled in this suffocating environment.
It is in this strict climate that we first met Diana, Princess of Wales, who is late for a Christmas weekend event at one of the Royal Family’s many estates — which just so happens to be located next to her childhood home. From the opening scene, Larraín frames Diana in a completely different context than the rest of the characters. Where the arrival of the guests at the ancestral estate of Sandringham is methodical, symmetrical, and meticulously timed, Diana is not escorted by a security detail or a driver, but driving alone on the countryside, stopping at a diner to ask some patrons for directions. An oppressive Jonny Greenwood score that mixes baroque with dissonant jazz sounds, meanwhile, creates a cacophony of rhythms and noise.
From the moment Diana steps foot inside Sandringham, Larraín and cinematographer Claire Mathon separate her from the rest of the characters. She’s in constant rebellion to antiquated traditions, with the other two people capable of realizing the absurdity being her own children — who ask why they must open Christmas presents a day before normal kids, or why the heating is never on inside the estate.
Even visually, Diana is kept in a separate world from the rest of the family. Her scenes feel as messy and frenetic as the woman behind the title, using handheld cameras that swirl around and shake as Diana does, and keeping the oppressive Royal Family rigid, unmovable, and distant. Whenever Diana is in the scene, the camera stays fixated on her face using medium angle shots that accentuate the claustrophobia of Diana being alone in such big halls.
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Stewart is an absolute revelation as the titular Diana Spencer, giving her one of the best performances of her career and perfectly capturing Diana’s mannerisms, while adapting them for her own spin on the character. She goes from a happy woman who finds joy in small things, like just being with her kids playing silly games after midnight, to being haunted by the ghosts of her past and the mockery of her present. Stewart compassionately portrays a woman suffering with an eating disorder, frustrated by the lack of empathy and understanding around her, while being unafraid to go full camp with the theatricalities of the role, as when she imagines herself eating the pearl necklace she is forced to wear for dinner, or shouting to a member of the house staff that she will masturbate in order to send her off.
Larraín continues to excel at finding the humanity inside the icon, with another biopic that refuses to adhere to known conventions or formulas, instead playing with fact and fiction like you’re watching a David Lynch movie. In the case of Spencer, the title of the movie should tell you everything you need to know about the film’s approach to its subject. This is not the story you know about Diana Princess of Wales, fashion and anti-establishment icon, but about Diana Spencer, the mother of two kids, the woman with simple pleasures that likes to have fun and goes against her terrible mother-in-law and insufferable husband.
Luckily, we don’t have to see too much of those family members. Fans of The Crown, which explores the Royal Family more comprehensively, shouldn’t expect the same treatment in Spencer, as most of the family isn’t seen at all. In fact, only Charles and the Queen get lines of dialogue, and they’re gone as quickly as they are introduced. This is not the likable Queen Elizabeth with moments of humanity and warmth that we’ve seen in the Netflix drama, but Her Royal Highness, a title more than a person, and a specter that looms over the entire film even if she’s not seen.
Other than Stewart, the only three characters played by big-name actors are members of the house staff. There’s Timothy Spall, who plays a butler obsessed with keeping everything according to plan, meaning he’s constantly clashing with Diana; Sean Harris as the chef, who tries to get Diana to comply with all the norms and rules but in a nicer way, reminding her that it will be over in a few days; and then there’s Sally Hawkins as Maggie, the only person in the estate to actually show her some empathy and present a vision of a better future. The comparison to A Christmas Carol is no joke, and by the end of Spencer, Diana all but reaches out to us to proclaim “God bless us, every one!” while the Queen is left sighing and whispering “bah humbug.”
Spencer is not as accessible a film as Jackie, even if they share many similarities. Like its subject, Spencer is messy in its narrative, jumping around, introducing dream-like elements that don’t always add up and threaten to derail the film, but Stewart’s phenomenal performance keeps the film grounded in the story of the woman behind the icon. By the end, The Crown is but a distant memory, and all that remains is the joyful and celebratory image of a mother who should have had many more years free of her extravagant, luxurious, and ancient captivity.