Kristen Stewart gives a top-tier performance of quiet rage as the tormented Princess Diana in this journey down a psychological hellhole that is as formally-crafted a film as you’ll see this year.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins
Plot: During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana Spencer, struggling with mental health problems, decides to end her decade-long marriage to Prince Charles.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for Best Leading Actress (Oscars)
International Sales: FilmNation
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mental Health; Weight of Expectations
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: In Theatres – Shaw Lido
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana is a revelation in Spencer, the new film from Pablo Larrain, who is probably Chile’s most lauded filmmaker working today.
A great companion piece to his Jackie (2016), which starred Natalie Portman as the wife of JFK, Spencer is another decidedly unusual work about a famous woman in the 20th century who was tormented by what life threw at her.
As an epigraph in the opening moments states, this is “a fable from a true tragedy”, which suggests that this is not a biopic but a reimagining of what it might have felt like to be—and be in the accompany of—Diana.
There is little claim to historical authenticity, or at least it is downplayed; instead, Larrain fashions an unconventional work that brings Diana down a psychological hellhole where escape (from the rules of tradition) is futile. To that end, as a character study masquerading as a chamber piece, Spencer succeeds admirably.
“I’m a magnet for madness. Other people’s madness.”
The exquisite cinematography (by Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Claire Mathon) and production design are a feast for the eyes, and so is Johnny Greenwood’s unhinged experimental jazz-infused music (much more imposing than his minimalistic work for The Power of the Dog).
Without a doubt, Spencer is as formally-crafted a film as you’ll see this year, with artistic curveballs thrown. It’s no mere period drama but flirts with genre elements that one might not usually associate with a prestige picture like this.
The big question is: will mainstream audiences enjoy Spencer? I’m not confident enough to say yes—it may be too odd for most, even with Stewart at the helm.
She has always been given the short shrift when it comes to acting, but I’ve been a fan since her Olivier Assayas twin collabs, Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper (2016), so I’m rooting for her to win that coveted Oscar.