“Akin to a staggering choral piece, with overwhelming layers of sounds and countermelodies putting us right at the heart of everything, knocking us over.”
by Ken Bakely
In Pablo Larraín’s new film, Spencer, the director takes great care to make sure that Sandringham House looks as unsettling as possible; that – through all the gilded fixtures, and even in the largest and most imposing state rooms – there’s always the distinct impression that the household’s army-like staff has ensured that nary a single wisp of fresh air will ever enter. As Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) observes early on, there is no future here: there’s only the past, which absorbs the present. It’s Christmas in 1991, and as the relentless tabloid press starts to run wild with speculation that Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is on the verge of collapse, she finds herself in this house, not far from the Norfolk estate she grew up in, with the rest of the royal family largely pretending as if she was not there – appreciation is only really given by Princes William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). This sets the stage for a vortex of a movie to follow: this is a deliberately unhinged spiral through the mind of a woman who’s been pushed nearly to the breaking point, wrung from an early age through a system which deliberately tries to vacuum any and all self-actualization out of her. In trying to put us in her headspace, Larraín’s hyperfocused mannerisms as a director can sometimes obscure the character portrait he’s aiming to deliver, but he approaches Steven Knight’s script with a sharp, unsentimental precision, complimented perfectly by Kristen Stewart’s harrowing, tightly-sewn performance.
The film is closely fixed on Diana poring through streams of memories and ideas cascading through her mind – some clear, some abstract, some actual, some imagined, some helplessly convoluted between the four. But they feel palpable to her in a way nothing around her does, as the stodgy pageantry of the royal family at Christmas underlines not merely indicates how unreal her surroundings feel, but how nothing’s even allowed to seem real. Claire Mathon’s claustrophobic cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s purposefully chaotic score underline this further, providing external realization to Stewart’s acting. As Diana, she barely speaks above a whisper at times, but communicates a violent tempest within through extraordinary detail and observational grace – gestures, body language, and pauses communicate as much as when she’s in the middle of Larraín’s most fantastical rushes. Though this performance is so necessarily internal, it’s telling how Stewart plays the character’s interactions with the two staff members she speaks with most – the strict, managerial Alistair (Timothy Spall) and her head dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins) – grabbing onto any piece of identity she can share, persistently looking for connections to something palpable and human. Hawkins particularly shines here, as a character whose limited screen time hardly prevents her from an indelible, depthful, charming turn.
Spencer soars when it gives everyone their due here, allowing their work to shine in the execution of this intimate, shattering character study. But when problems do arise, it’s when Larraín seems caught between two tracks here – at different times, he seems conflicted about whether this should be a movie about a person or an experiment placing this person within his movie. Where he places the emphasis makes considerable difference in what actually comes through onscreen, as the latter tends to drown everything else out and make it all about some rather obvious choices – a pivotal motif involves Diana literally trying to break out of Sandringham with wire cutters, which is a bit too thuddingly obvious in comparison to everything else. I had this problem, to a more troublesome extent, with his 2016 quasi-biopic, Jackie, but I respond to this movie overall with more fascination and favor. It feels, on balance, far more well-attuned to itself: Larraín works within the broad narrative arcs of Knight’s script, and does not seem to outwardly fight them. And to be sure, his distinctive style is a big part of what makes this all ride so elegantly and hauntingly when it does. When working in communion, Spencer is akin to a staggering choral piece, with overwhelming layers of sounds and countermelodies putting us right at the heart of everything, knocking us over. And though it might not always have the clockwork command necessary amid its intentionally dueling approaches, the human core of this tragedy – and Stewart’s bringing it to life – are never lost amid the melee.