By Reed Ripley
- Directed by: Pablo Larraín
- Drama/Biopic/Psychological Horror | R | 1 hr 51 min
- Exclusively In Theaters
For some, the holidays evoke not feelings of comfort and joy, but instead feelings of dread and despair at the thought of forced and enclosed pleasantries with family, and Spencer is all too happy to kick off the season with the latter.
Spencer captures three days (Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day) at the Royal Family’s holiday country estate, Sandringham House, and Princess Diana’s unsettled place within the gathering. During the holiday, Diana deals with severe anxiety and stress, both internal and external, and tries to find a way to survive stilted tradition, overwhelming public and private expectation, and an estranged and distant husband until she can retreat to London with her children.
The filmmakers made a fascinating choice to subvert the traditional biopic formula, which isn’t done nearly as often as it should. This isn’t a straightforward adaptation of events from Diana’s or the Royal Family’s past, à la The Crown; instead, although not ‘scary’ per se, its style is much more in line with a psychological horror film. It recreates not an historical account of a moment in time, but instead a certain feeling or atmosphere, namely the mental headspace of Diana in the early 90s as her marriage fell apart and the press and paparazzi kicked into high gear. It’s an incredibly risky choice, and it mostly pays off to deliver a unique perspective on Diana’s life and insert some much-needed vivacity into the genre.
Bold framing or no, it doesn’t work with Kristen Stewart’s performance, and she again proves it’s been a long time since Twilight. Diana ascended to an almost mythical status even before her untimely death, and everyone who watches the film (even those who aren’t Royal watchers) does so with some sort of cultural relationship with her. The film is keenly aware of this, and instead of devoting screen time to laying an existing foundation, it lets Stewart convey the Diana experience intimately through her mannerisms and actions. Much consternation was made about Stewart’s accent leading into Spencer’s release, but, although I’m no dialect coach, I can report it’s at least not distracting. Stewart inhabits the Diana persona with aplomb and bounces convincingly between warmth, fear, anxiety, sometimes within the span of a few frames. It carries the film (as it has to), and hopefully Stewart makes more choices like this going forward.
As strong as the film is at times, it’s those very strengths that often turn into weaknesses, thanks largely to Larraín’s habit of laying it on thick. Again, the camerawork is splendid at times, but often, especially later in the film, those flourishes turn into annoyances. Yes yes, you’re using tracking shots to reference The Shining, but one or two would’ve done the trick. Similarly, the film quickly wears out a running analogy of Diana’s situation to that of Anne Boleyn, beheaded second wife to King Henry VIII, including appearances from Anne’s ghost, Diana’s bedside reading of her biography, and looming portraits of Henry VIII. The analogy is a stretch on its own but devoting so much time to it is frankly exasperating. These are hardly the only examples; both are symptoms of a lack of trust in the audience to get it, and it adds bloat to a film that doesn’t have much elsewhere.
Spencer will probably disappoint some who expect snappy dialogue between Royals in beautiful rooms with Princess Diana inserted into the mix, but the film delivers an interesting take on the genre and gives us a brilliant Stewart performance.