Festivals, Reviews

TIFF 2021: ‘Spencer’—A Stunning Character Study Unlike the Other Dianas

This year would have been Princess Diana’s 60th birthday. Her story is a tragedy known all over: a beautiful woman who fell in love with a prince, the heir to the once-mighty British Empire, who did not love her back. Despite that, she used her status to help others and the world learned to love her. After her tragic death in 1997, the world mourned her, and what followed is the hundreds of films and TV shows about her life. 

Pablo Larraín, with success from Jackie and Chilean film Ema, decided to take on Steven Knight’s script (creator of Peaky Blinders) and chose Kristen Stewart for the titular role. At first, people had their doubts. Twilight shot Stewart to fame but it also attracted a lot of criticism towards her; and The Crown just released a fantastic season focusing on Diana, with Emma Corrin delivering a powerhouse performance. But Stewart’s take on Diana is a masterclass and incomparable to other portrayals.

“A fable from a true tragedy,” reads before the film starts, a sort of warning to say this is not the Diana we all know. Coming into the film with a mindset of the Princess Diana portrayed by the media, the princess our parents knew, would not work out for this interpretation of her life. The film spans three days: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day at Sandringham. It is vague as to which exact chapter of her life the film was based on, but it was obviously during the time when her marriage to Prince Charles was at its breaking point. Diana breaks protocol upon arrival, driving herself to the estate and challenging Gregory (Timothy Spall), the Queen Mother’s equerry who is looking after the family during their holidays. What comes next is a portrayal of Diana on the edge as she tries to spend three days with the most suffocating family in the country.

Larraín, together with DOP Claire Mathon and Jonny Greenwood’s music accompaniment, creates a stunning character study of a modern princess who is trapped in the past wanting to get out. Aside from Diana’s woes, Spencer delivers a visual essay on how the British royal family is stuck in its ways and is out of touch with the world, which Diana despises. In the opening scene, the Royal Air Force carries the supplies needed for the kitchen with uniformity and ceremony that are clearly excessive for merely carrying a box of lobsters. As they leave the premises, a sign on the kitchen wall reads, “Keep noise to a minimum they can hear you,” a warning to those who work for the family to not bring any attention to their existence. 

The film also touches base with the royal household caring for the family, a la Downton Abbey, including the family’s head chef Darren (Sean Harris), who has a good relationship with Diana and treats her like an equal instead of royalty. There’s also Maggie (Sally Hawkins), Diana’s dresser and closest confidant who was sent away because of their closeness. Her relationship with the household staff shows that Diana is not uppity and tight-lipped like her in-laws are.

Spencer is not a dramatization of Diana and the British royal family. It is a metaphor that materializes a Diana that is closer to reality than what the public perceived her as. Larraín delivers a film that is a masterclass all over; better than his past film Jackie which also dwells on a famous historical wife struck by tragedy. Mathon uses her camera to speak to the audience directly about what Diana is feeling as she spirals down, and Greenwood’s score evokes this through his tantalizing mixture of classical and jazz. Stewart delivers an eloquent performance with her interpretation of the people’s princess, a child-like woman trying to get out of an institution stuck in the past and trying to destroy her innocence.

Spencer is one of the best films of the year, and among the countless depictions of the British royal family and Diana, this is one of the best. Stewart continues to prove that she is an actress to watch out for as she takes on meatier roles.

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