Spencer (2021)

“I have absolutely no idea where I am.”

Cool, calm, collected. We first see Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart, delivering one of the best performances of her still youthful career), as a scion driving herself to the family Christmas at the Sandringham Estate. The convertible top is down, the music is up and the gas peddle is firmly pressed. And yet she’s still late to this labyrinth, still the last to arrive, careful to navigate herself back to what feels like a “home” located close to her actual boarded up childhood home. Diana sees herself as am altogether disappointment because she can’t play by the many antiquated rules, but she’s never entirely governed by them either; she’s a comfortable and airy pair of Levi’s living through years of tradition bound by corsets. Diana is never at ease in the halls. She’s a rebel with a cause and intent. Spencer is an incomplete film about a life cut short, and it gives real agency to a public figure stripped of it behind the scenes. It never once felt false or contrived.

Watching Diana speed up the long drive, with a foreboding opening shot as the title spreads across the screen, feels as though you’re watching a woman who’s the last in attendance for her own funeral. It’s the holidays and she slowly saunters through the doors. She’s to be literally weighed on a scale, dressed like a doll, puppeteered by the many nameless faces behind the scenes of this royal game of roleplay. It’s clear Diana is on the brink, that she’s completely overwhelmed by a life she signed up for without reading the terms and conditions, and that she never truly gets to be herself. She’s a pretty pawn in a family that clearly has no intention of her ever making it across the board or becoming Queen. But maybe it’s just easy to say and observe that in retrospect.

I’m not sure where they shot the film, how many sets were built, or how many different locations were pulled together, but Spencer always sports the regal look you expect. And while the surrounding cast members are great (can you go wrong with Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris, and Timothy Spall in an ensemble?), the real star here is the face front and center. As someone heavily scrutinized and pressured by the media and her industry from an early age, it’s apparent that Stewart empathized with the weight upon Diana’s shoulders, and she channels it into one of the year’s best, most cathartic performances. It’s a psychological rollercoaster and she doesn’t hit a single bump along the way. I’d be baffled if she isn’t nominated for an Academy Award.

As a companion piece to his more striking and visually stunning film in 2016’s Jackie, director Pablo Larraín has crafted a tailored hand-me-down of sorts, and the picture feels less vital or important because it’s more clumsily pieced together than the former. I’m not sure if it’s because I saw it early, but the muffled audio mix was awful, leaving most of the intimate moments indecipherable. And after comparing both, Spencer seems to be more of a film about a protagonist determined to beat to the rhythm of her own drum – spiraling about through costumes and ages during the beautiful vignette – and illustrates how the pressure is unavoidable. Spencer is a calculated maze of a movie, and the proper sentiments are there for us to uncover along the way. The journey is more vital and insightful than the destination.

“You are your own weapon. Don’t cut it to pieces.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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