Pablo Larrain’s biopic drama Spencer (2021) escapes categorization, as it constantly finds new ways to surprise. Sumptuous beauty and elegance are in abundance here, alas this is a demanding movie to watch and it won’t won’t tickle everyone’s fancy.
Ever since I’ve seen El Club (2015) – Pablo Larraín’s controversial exposé of the cover-ups of galling crimes happening in the ranks of the Catholic Church – the Chilean director immediately became one to follow. Neither of his following titles drew that level, but Larraín could never be denied propensity to experiment. On almost every possible ground, his newest film Spencer (2021) does exactly that – it defies the beaten paths and seeks its own, unique form.
Larraín masterfully sets the opening scene – on a cold morning army trucks arrive at a monumental Sandringham estate; soldiers commence to sweep the area before the khaki-wearing regiment’s replaced by a column of white uniforms – a squadron of ant-like ghosts who will feed, comfort and please the royal family over the next couple of days. While the backstage works in silence, the posh figures gather round, and the entire entourage’s expecting Diana (Kristen Stewart) to finally arrive. Before that takes place, the air already fills with the inaudible ticking of a bomb that carries a promise of carnage upon the explosion. It’s sticky, it’s uncomfortable, hostile even.
Princess Diana isn’t particularly welcome – to say the least. In the eyes of the public opinion, Diana’s past her prime, spiraling out of control, however, she’s still the people’s sweet darling. And so people are worried, facing the menace of their beloved Princess hitting rock bottom. So, when we first meet her, Diana pretends to lose her bearings and finds herself in a pub where the regular folk greet her with jaws on the floor and arms wide open. Diana stalls her arrival, but, like a lamb to its slaughter, the confrontation’s inevitable.
For modern audiences – myself included – Princess Diana barely made an appearance in history books, let alone evoke strong feelings. Larraín, however, spends little time on painting the big picture here – think of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2017) to get the vibe of what’s going on. The decision to provide little context to her whole silhouette seems risky, but luckily for the Chilean director, Kristen Stewart guarantees that no matter how little you knew about Diana before, you’ll feel for her nonetheless.
In Spencer (2021), Kristen Stewart paints an internalized, deeply premeditated and accurate portrayal of Diana. Every scene expands on the palette of colors used to paint her, therefore the entire presence’s both ghastly and engrossing; her suffering is palpable, and Stewart gets the sulky eyes, and the radiation of pain visible in every move she makes. Diana’s waging a war on her own, against the demons of the past, the presence and the future. There are layers to this role, unraveled with precision and method by Larraín and executed flawlessly by Stewart. It’s undeniably the most mature and, well, best role of Kristen so far.
Although the actress steals the show, there’s room in Spencer (2021) for more stars to shine. The royal kitchen’s under the baton of Sean Harris as chef Darren, whose sensitivity and honesty turn into a shoulder to cry on, but only as far as the societal and professional relationship allows. Joining the league of the unspoken-of everyday heroes that keep picking Diana up is Maggie, a trusted confidant and dresser of the Princess, played by Sally Hawkins. Finally, it’s only right to mention the performance of Timothy Spall as Major Alistar Gregory – a martinet whose stone facade protects an affectionate ally on Diana’s side. All of these people, one way or another, provide an excellent counterargument for the royal family, whom Pablo Larraín purposefully positions as an almost faceless monster – a force to be reckoned with, but that comes with a vague sketch.
I’ve mentioned Steve Jobs (2017) earlier for a reason too, because Steven Knight’s writing was clearly inspired by Aaron Sorkin’s work. Instead of serving a long exposition as to the entire conflict between Diana and her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), as well as the entire royal family, Knight prefers to unearth details as takeaway; something that we’ll digest on the go. Hence the unforgettably delirious scene in which Diana devours her pearly necklace – a token of her broken heart – during the first meal that reveals her feelings better than any words could. Knight doesn’t waste paper on words that bring no value, and that’s why he makes certain moments reverberate so powerfully. All it takes for the writer to reduce the whole royal family circus is Charles’ bomb about wearing two faces – one for the public and one for the real, everyday life.
Where Spencer (2021) is mostly distinguished from the rest of biopics out there is its constant escape from compartmentalization. Pablo Larraín never settles on a drama about a misunderstood individual who feels trapped in a world where she doesn’t fit. One of the boldest moves here is the embrace of horror elements, arriving through an allegory to Ann Boleyn – a beheaded queen who appears as a blight that Diana encounters. The metaphor of Diana coming to the Christmas gathering like Ann Boleyn to her final hours is crude, but it’s the ghastly appearances that highlight the torment of Stewart’s character. Sense of fear and unrest isn’t precisely what I’d expect from a biopic about Princess Diana, but Pablo Larraín sells this idea with confidence and style.
Like the exquisite array of dresses worn by Kristen Stewart, Spencer (2021) also devises an unforgettably chic visual design. Claire Mathon, the mind behind the cinematography, patiently sticks to Diana, clustering most of the shots in short distance from the main star, thus making even the most sumptuous interiors tiny or overwhelming. That’s also where Jacqueline Durran’s costumes play their pivotal role. They render Diana both a fashion icon, as well as a woman who hides behind the wall of all the gorgeously looking, eye-popping garments, supposedly making her look like she “belongs”.
Viewers who expected a traditional biopic drama will not find what they’re looking for here. Spencer (2021) reaches for a far less formulaic form, leaving a long-lasting impression of a lucid dream – a nightmare, to be frank – that talks about suppressed unhappiness, and how we often have to wear masks to hide our problems. It’s a bitter look at Diana, and one that purposefully omits her brightest days. Also, it’s one more likely to carve its title in stone, rather than a simplistic piece that we’ll forget next year.