Acclaimed filmmaker Pablo Larrain's film Spencer releases in India on 19 November 2021. This is his latest biopic after Jackie (2016), starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy. While many other actresses have played Jackie Kennedy / Onassis well, Larrain has been able to extract a unique performance from Natalie Portman. He does the same with Kristen Stewart in Spencer, the biopic of Diana, Princess of Wales. Larrain and writer Steven Knight captivate the viewer with their unusual storytelling of an oft-told cinematic subject. Kristen Stewart has truly come of age as an actress in Spencer. Both fans and detractors of the actress in the Twilight series will agree after watching her in the film. But true fans will know Kristen has the appeal and talent to pull off a variety of roles. Be it her entrancing act in Personal Shopper (2016), which won her the prestigious César Award in France, her take as iconic actress-activist Jean Seberg in the biopic Seberg (2019) or her lighter version in her last film, Clea DuVall's romcom Happiest Season (2020).
Has Kristen Stewart done justice to Lady Diana's character in yet another depiction of the royal's tragic story in Spencer? Like we said, she has come of age as an actor and this seems to be the beginning of a great innings as an actor in her second phase. The girl has surely brought in her own intensity and cannot be compared to any other Princess Diana portrayal. Read on to find out more.
Story And Cinematic Treatment - Cinematography, Music, Editing, Costumes
Spencer the biopic does not dwell or delve into the entire (and unfortunately short) lifespan of Princess Diana. The movie revolves around three life-changing days over a Christmas holiday at the royal Sandringham House. A holiday so seeped in norms and customs that it sees the already troubled Princess of Wales reach her breaking point. Spencer shows Diana on the verge of insanity, with her marriage breaking down, her bulimia, her mental agony, her hauntings...until she finally decides to put her royal status behind and take charge of her life. Note that the film is called Spencer, Lady Diana's maiden name, and it is apt, since the film is about breaking free from the norms of the British royal family she was married into.
The best scene in Spencer [SPOILER] would easily be the 'Christmas game' one, which is being played by Diana and her young sons Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry) as a Q&A between 'General and Soldiers'. The Q&A is rather revealing with only honest answers, and it is interesting to note that the scene was shot impromptu, extempore. The two kids and Kristen played it along in character and have come up with a gem!
The scene also shows the comfort of the mother with her sons, who are more like BFFs to her and remain till the end. Probably the only BFFs apart from her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) who we assume in another reimagining (SPOILER) is revealed to be in love with the Princess. ("F**k the doctors...what you need is love," she tells the Princess, and later they share a good laugh over her romantic attachment.)
Spencer focuses on telling the story through less dialogues and more close-up and point-of-view camera angles and interesting long shots, and haunting music. Spencer comes across as a psychological drama.
Even then, it conveys how Lady Di was apparently treated in the royal household, even by her husband Prince Charles. That the public knows most of the rumoured or perceived back story helps the film.
Is nothing new revealed? One does not think Spencer aims to do that, to provide more documentary facts. It aims to convey in its "fable from a true tragedy" the subtleties of what the most popular royal of our times went through while struggling to maintain a mostly happy public façade.
Dialogues are used for effect and are minimal - with Princess Diana's lines being mostly hued with sarcasm and a sense of humour only an emotionally distant person could have. But those words stay with you.
Adding to the magic of the proceedings on screen is the cinematography by Claire Mathon, who had created captivating artistic visuals in Céline Sciamma's wondrous Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019).
The music of Spencer by Jonny Greenwood further creates the mood and elevates each scene - remember, this is a film with less dialogues. The editing by Sebastián Sepúlveda keeps the film mostly crisp and mysterious at the right points.
Spencer costume designer Jacqueline Durran's brief was not to copy what Princess Diana wore, but have her own interpretation of the costumes of the '80s and the '90s. That works in showing us a princess dressed very different from her public persona. However, some real costumes of Princess Diana by Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld were beautifully recreated by Chanel for the film.
Having said that, Spencer does not let its costumes and opulent sets take centrestage. It rather shows the haunting feel of Diana's life behind the razzmatazz, her vulnerability, the lack of love and compassion in her life, leading her to miss her maternal home, childhood and life before marriage even more.
Kristen Stewart's Performance As Princess Diana
Although it's a bit difficult to imagine Kristen's face as Lady Diana's at first, once you see Kristen taking charge with the accent, the nuances and the mannerisms, you go with it. However, for those looking for a caricature of a performance in the biopic, or even prosthetics, this film is not for you. Stewart brings in her own skills into the act, making her portrayal of Princess Diana very real and emotional rather than biopic-esque. Just like how Princess Di would have wanted the world to look at her, and not like a beautiful royal only!
Kristen in an interview to TODAY said that she is a huge admirer of Princess Diana, and that the Princess "is not difficult to absorb" to be able to play her on screen with such conviction. The actress also admitted to being drawn to playing characters that are not usual - be it a fictional story or a biopic. That courage shows in her portrayal of Princess Diana.
Comparison is bound to happen between Princess Diana portrayals by Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki in The Crown to Kristen Stewart's in Spencer, and the earlier now-forgotten portrayals by other actresses. The Crown is the latest and multiple award-winning series on the UK royal family. In the same interview to TODAY, Stewart admitted that she had watched The Crown for three days as part of her research for Spencer. "It was nice to have that and going through all the memoirs and researching documentaries...it was nice to have a dramatised version of the story (The Crown). It was very clickbaity for me. I just couldn't stop and kept clicking for the next episode," revealed Kristen. Thankfully, nothing of it shows in her performance in Spencer, which is totally her own!
The other actors' performances, including that of Jack Farthing as Prince Charles, the impressive Timothy Spall as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory and Stella Gonet as Queen Elizabeth II, and the boys, perfectly fit in the milieu. But it's Kristen Stewart's film all the way.
A cinematic victory for the team of Spencer! The only thing that could work against the film is the viewers' fatigue at watching the story of the same famous figure play out in so many different formats of film, including web series and documentary. But then, how can one ever get tired of anything about Princess Diana? Of course, the royal family will have their own view on yet another portrayal.
Kristen Stewart wins us over with her intense performance, which may be underwhelming for some but may well garner her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for Spencer. We would have given 3 stars to the film if not for Kristen Stewart. As they say, the right casting is half the film (battle) won.
Our Rating for Spencer: 3.5/5
Disclaimer: Filmibeat had been invited to an exclusive and niche screening of the film in Mumbai before its India release.