Directed by Pablo Larraín.
Starring Kristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Thomas Douglas, Olga Hellsing, Matthias Wolkowski, Oriana Gordon, Ryan Wichert, John Keogh, Amy Manson, Elizabeth Berrington, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Lore Stefanek, James Harkness, Laura Benson, Wendy Patterson, and Libby Rodliffe.
During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana decides to leave her marriage to Prince Charles.
Positioning itself as an imagined fable from real tragedy, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (similar in mood and tone to his look at Jackie Kennedy) is a darkly transfixing look at the suffering and oppression plaguing the titular Princess of Wales’ life during a time of impending divorce impeccably anchored by a trenchantly sympathetic Kristen Stewart. That’s one way of saying that the film has one of the year’s best performances inside one of the best movies of the year.
Interpreting what the Christmas time holidays may have been like for the royal family at the time, Portrait of a Lady on Fire cinematographer Claire Mathon is tasked with showing off the Royal Sandringham Estate, mainly from a God’s eye perspective, illustrating the expansive size of the territory. The same is done for the interiors, which may as well be as vast as the outdoors (the production design packs a daunting amount of detail into every single location). This is done to make a point that no matter how much space Princess Diana Spencer has, she’s relentlessly observed and oppressed like a hawk by everyone from the Royals to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), and anyone under their thumb to do their bidding. They dictate to Diana how to behave, appropriately dress for each occasion, stop her in her tracks from heading out, and generally suck whatever life remains out of her. She does have a friend and supporter in servant Maggie (Sally Hawkins), urging Diana to make a few changes and pushed back because the Royals are not going to do that themselves.
Naturally, the living conditions have saddled Diana with or worsened various mental illnesses. She is routinely metaphorically slapped across the face, such as being forced to wear a pearl necklace that is nothing more than a reminder of her husband’s unfaithfulness as he bought his mistress the same gift. Unexpectedly from a gifted visionary filmmaker such as Pablo Larraín, the necklace also becomes a visual focal point for horrifying and tragic scenes. Diana also deals with bulimia, self-harm, and growing mania that Kristen Stewart channels without gross exploitation among the distant marriage. She is definitively or damn near close to the most incredible working actress today. She doesn’t make a single false move here, often imbuing moments of boiling internal rage with nuance. There’s a scene opposite Prince Charles where Diana is forcefully tapping her fingers across the table, complete with facial expressions saying everything that needs to be said.
Diana only expresses happiness when she is around her children, showing deep affection and trust. If Diana seems to be acting stranger and more unstable than usual, she wants them to make it known to her directly. Additionally, they have amusing conversations about Christmas gifts and, at one point, are able to get away from the estate going somewhere so ridiculous (and disguised) that it needs to be seen to be believed. It also gets across the point that whatever may have seemed appealing about living such a royal life has waned. And that’s primarily because of the cruel treatment she is subjected to.
Whenever alone and not demanded to get dressed (typically in glamorous dresses intricately dazzling and vibrantly colorful in ways that pop against the otherwise cold and bleak color palette) and attend some family gathering or public appearance she couldn’t muster up any energy to care about anymore, Diana wanders around the typically empty estate as if Spencer is a horror movie. It doesn’t matter where she goes or what she tries to do, as someone will be there to question her or stop her. On that level, it’s eerie and haunting, which is only accentuated by Jonny Greenwood’s intentionally distorted and mesmerizing score that fits Diane’s broken psyche. She doesn’t even have a say in how her children are raised, with her objections to Prince Charles teaching the boys how to shoot birds falling on deaf ears.
Spencer so impressively penetrates a point and time of Princess Diana’s life that, with any hope, should convince more filmmakers that it’s the way to go for biopics. The upfront liberties Pablo Larrain takes (using a minimalistic but crackling script from Stephen Knight nonetheless) grant him the ability to introduce a beautiful third-act subplot that cuts to the core of all the good things Diana deserves. It’s as painful and sorrowful a biopic as they come, but not without perseverance as Diana slowly stands up for herself.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com