'Spencer': A Meditative Portrait of a True Icon
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
It's no secret that Diana, Princess of Wales, has a bit of a complicated legacy. While she was beloved by many for her glamour and charisma, she also clashed with the royal family, and was often mistreated by them. She also had several issues with her marriage to Prince Charles, as well as other issues in her private life. Through it all, she became an international icon, and her untimely death led to one of the biggest outpourings of mourning all over the world. Many people choose to remember her as the fashionable, warm-hearted person that they commonly saw in the media, but Pablo Larrain's Spencer strips some of this facade away, and exposes the humanity and mental state of a woman who is struggling with her place in the public eye.
Many other reviews have said that this film feels like a horror film, and at the risk of saying what's already been said before, I have to agree to an extent. This film truly puts us in the headspace of Diana, and we feel the pressure she is under throughout the entire film. It uses elements of psychological horror to show her fraught mental state, and there are moments throughout the film that made me rather tense. Even one of the opening shots of the film, which lingers on a sign in a kitchen that says "Keep Noise to a Minimum. They Can Hear You." is rather foreboding and gives the viewer a sense that something is off. The film largely takes place in a mansion that is as elegant as it is haunting, and the way certain scenes are shot and framed give off a sense of claustrophobia and isolation. It's an approach that may seem unorthodox to some, but I personally think it serves the film rather well, and helps the audience empathize with Diana.
Some people might also be put off by this film being a fictionalized account of the life of Diana. I would definitely not go into this expecting a historically accurate account, but I will say that there are portions of the film that are rooted in truth. This film functions as more of a character study, as we spend much of the film with Diana, and it is more concerned with uncovering the human aspects of her, rather than feeding into any sort of mythos. Kristen Stewart's take on Diana is subtle, yet highly authentic. She truly embodies the mannerisms and smaller details of her, and at times, disappears into the character. It is a fascinating performance, and one that draws in the viewer, rather than being a showier, Oscar-baity one. It's arguably her best performance to date, and is filled with so much specificity, and feels so fully realized. It's no surprise that she is getting a lot of awards buzz for her work here, and I will be shocked if she doesn't at least get an Oscar nom for it.
While Stewart's performance is a big reason why the film works as well as it does, the cinematography and score deserves some serious credit. Claire Mathon's camerawork is quite impressive, especially in the more tense scenes of the film. The way she frames certain shots, and the use of tracking shots are quite great. I like how there is an almost lush quality to the color grading, and how it contrasts with what we see on screen in the tenser moments of the film. As for Jonny Greenwood's score, let's just say if he doesn't win an Oscar this year, something is horribly wrong. His score encapsulates the film so well, as there are moments of beauty and elegance, and moments that are almost anxiety inducing. The use of piano and strings to represent these ends of the spectrum are highly effective, and are a perfect match for the film.
In addition to the cinematography, the film also has gorgeous production design, and uses color quite well. The mansion where the film takes place is beautiful, and is so visually striking. Part of this is also thanks to the immaculate costuming, especially for Kristen Stewart. Diana was well known for her fashion sense, and the film lives up to this in a big way. The costumes for Diana are eye-catching, and carry the sense of elegance that's commonly associated with her. The editing is also quite great, as it serves to further put us in the head of Diana. There is a particular sequence near the end that I won't spoil, that is one of the best of the film, and so much of why it works so well is because of how it is edited. Basically, all of the behind the line people did an excellent job on this movie, and their hard work has paid off nicely.
This film has already garnered some comparisons to 2016's Jackie, and it's easy to see why. For starters, both are directed by Pablo Larrain. Both films also focus on an iconic woman of the late 20th century, and seek to find the humanity in them. Despite these similarities, the approach to both films are quite different. Jackie is more dreamlike, and has a unique structure, and is heavily linked to actual events. Spencer is more of an imagining of a specific time in Diana's life, and is more concerned with the inner conflict she faces between wanting to have the independence she had before she married into the royal family, and living up to the high expectations of her as a highly public figure. The film is quite introspective on Diana's part, as she faces such internal and emotional conundrums throughout the film. This is portrayed with quite a bit of nuance, both on Larrain and Stewart's part, and makes for a more meditative look at Diana. While there is a certain element of that in Jackie, it feels that this film truly goes a bit deeper in this regard, and gives us a unique look inside Diana's head.
I can't help but feel that I will need another viewing of this in order to solidify my feelings on it, but I must say that I was quite impressed by Spencer. While Kristen Stewart's performance is obviously a major highlight, I felt that the technical elements were incredible, and that this film definitely has the potential to be a huge awards player this season. But more than that, this is an atmospheric film with such emotional depth, and it offers up an intriguing and arresting portrait of one of the most iconic figures in recent history.