It’s not supernatural to think that biopics are vehicles for actors to chase the victory lap during awards season. For many films cut from this crop, it’s a two-hour movie loaded with montages, prologues, monologues, epilogues, flashbacks and everything in between. There’s usually a climactic scene featuring the main character melodramatically saying the film's title to cap it off.
However, for Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (2016’s Jackie), the goal is not to make a film that merely exists to shine the spotlight on his muse — Kristen Stewart, in this case. While Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana in Spencer is one made for awards, Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders series creator) use Diana’s tragic story to share “a fable” of their own creation (as the opening text of the film reveals). There’s no doubt that much of what we see in Spencer is rooted in truth based on the rumblings surrounding the royal family. However, instead of getting caught up in the A-to-B plot mechanics, the storytellers use Diana’s life to launch a more profound experience that explores inner turmoil, complex relationships, love, motherhood and the sacrifices made to appear pristine to the public. It all amounts to a two-hour tightening of a piano wire — a truly fascinating and haunting work.
Spencer - a title derived from Diana’s given name - follows the late princess during a pivotal holiday weekend in 1991 — one that ultimately led to her separation from Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). It’s Christmas time with the royal family at Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, but it’s hardly merry. It’s a plunge into the emotional landscape of a distressed Diana. The royal family — including Stella Gonet as The Queen, Richard Sammel as Prince Philip, Elizabeth Berrington as Princess Anne, Jack Nielen as young William and Freddie Spry as young Harry — becomes increasingly more aware of the strains in her marriage.
The beads of the pearl necklace gifted by Prince Charles weigh heavy around Diana’s neck, almost to the point of blood spewing from suffocation. Food doesn’t sit in her stomach and requires trips to the toilet after meals. She doesn’t fancy the poppy colors of the dresses selected for each occasion. (She’d rather dress for a funeral and eat a bucket of KFC chicken.) And her whereabouts are always known as the halls whisper her every secret. Like Larraín’s underappreciated Jackie - about Natalie Portman’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis working to keep her husband’s legacy intact following his assassination - Spencer, at times, takes the shape of a horror movie. There’s a ghostly presence to the film as Diana’s mind plays tricks on her and even makes the apparition of Anne Boleyn appear. The parallels among other chapters of history are eerie, and the treatment Diana undergoes is devastating. You watch the light vanish within her as she longs for youthful innocence and freewill.
In Spencer, all components of filmmaking come together to craft a remarkable film that’s more about presenting life as it is experienced instead of a traditional narrative. Larraín’s direction doesn’t drift away from what happens within Diana’s cerebral walls. The long takes, wide angles (in 1:66:1 aspect ratio) and visual essay-like editing style create an immersive atmosphere. The colors sometimes have a muted look or grainy appearance to capture the roughness of Diana’s portrayed life. Jonny Greenwood’s musical score leans into that feeling by playing classical music with a few notes left of center. Sometimes they sound out of tune or have a horror track stacked on something that’s more inviting.
Then there’s Stewart’s performance. Her acting chops displayed here have been the talk of Tinseltown since Spencer premiered at film festivals. Considering she’s on-screen for virtually the film’s entirety, it’s easy to see why she’s been a part of the conversation. Stewart is hypnotizingly committed, British accent and all, to the role, adding tremendous fuel to the absorbing drama that offers punishing challenges. Any sight of the young woman from Twilight is in the rearview as Stewart gets the role she has long deserved to showcase her incredible range. Prime yourself for great scenes such as a truth-telling exercise with Diana’s children and cautionary conversations with a chef (a terrific Sean Harris) and a domineering equerry (an equally as good Timothy Spall). There are words spoken, but different words are gathered from the eyes.
Spencer could register as a slow film for those expecting a work driven more by the plot. It’s motorized by feeling and observation, like a Richard Linklater character study filtered through a Terrence Malick lens. It’s an experience, plain and simple, and a difficult one to shake.