'Spencer': Kristen Stewart Shines in Tense, Unconventional Princess Diana Biopic (Review)

The best biopics focus on specific moments in a person's life that bring better understanding of the subject beyond a simple birth-to-death exercise. In the case of Pablo Larrain's second biopic about a tragic female figure from history, Spencer, it is a fictional portrayal of the moment Princess Diana decided she needed to leave the Royal Family. Larrain, who also used a specific moment of Jackie Kennedy's life as the foundation for Jackie, succeeds again, thanks to an unconventional and experimental spirit that continues all the way to Kristen Stewart's astonishing performance as Diana.

The setting is December 1991, with the British Royal Family preparing to spend Christmas and Boxing Day at Queen Elizabeth's Sandringham Estate. Diana's marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has already been pushed to the limit by this time because of his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. Everything Diana does is also under the scrutiny of the paparazzi, so the Queen assigns Equerry Majoe Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) to keep an eye on her, even though they are at the isolated estate. Diana quickly realizes the only friends she has within the estate are her children, Prince William (Jack Nielsen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry), royal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris). She is isolated, despite belonging to a massive family, and closed in, despite staying at a massive estate. 

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(Photo: Pablo Larraín/Neon)

Spencer shows off Larrain's flair for embedding the audience in the conversations and minds of his characters. Although the film is his first collaboration with cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), the two are a perfect match. The pair bring the camera as close to Diana as possible, giving the audience ample time. The close-ups linger, the angles are ajar, and the lighting is perfect, bringing new dimensions to the performances. There's something about how Stewart is lit, combined with her acting skills, that makes it impossible to see that the actress is in there somewhere, puppeteering this desperate Diana. 

This is a one-woman show for sure, as none of the film's stylistic flourishes would matter if Stewart were not up to the challenge. Yet, it is still fascinating how the other actors play their part of the puzzle that is her state of mind. Farthing and Stella Gonet, who plays Queen Elizabeth II, get very brief scenes that show just how impossible it is for Diana to fit into their framework. They treat her as an alien, but since the film is told from Diana's perspective, they're the aliens to us. Stewart and Farthing appear to be in completely different movies, especially in the scene at a pool table where Charles is unable to understand why Diana wouldn't want her sons to participate in pheasant hunting. 

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Surprisingly, Spencer turns out to be a prison break movie. Diana struggles to keep her true self alive in a family that wants two different versions of everyone. The film leans into the real struggles Diana spoke about in her interviews, including her eating disorders and self-harm. For some, this might seem a little difficult to take, after all, Steven Knight's script is about someone whose death was just 24 years ago. But this is a hopeful movie. For all its dark passages, it provides a warm portrait of a person searching for the self that is still inside her. It's why this movie is called Spencer and not Diana. As Stewart walks that fine tightrope that divides a true performance from mere impersonation, the Diana of Spencer clearly has some of Diana Spencer still with her.