Pablo Larraín’s latest film “Spencer” is presented as “A fable from a true tragedy”, and it is clear from the beginning that the movie goes for something deeper than those well-known facts about its famous human subject. Although the overall result often feels clinical and distant with some distracting missteps to notice, the movie still works as an interesting character study at least, and, above all, it is held together well by its strong lead performance which is incidentally one of the best ones of this year.
The heroine of the movie is Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart), and the movie focuses on her three days of late December in 1991. As her British royal family members including her husband Charles, Prince of Wales (Jack Farthing) will gather together for Christmas at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, Diana also has go there as expected, but she does not feel that well from the beginning. She is expecting to have some good private time with her two sons, but, as gradually shown to us along the story, her marriage with her husband has been seriously deteriorated during last several years, and she has not even received much support or help from the other Royal family members including her mother-in-law.
Probably because of becoming quite nervous and distracted, Diana, who happens to decide to drive to Sandringham alone by herself, finds herself getting lost somewhere in the surrounding area, but she fortunately comes across the Royal Head Chef on the road when he is doing some errand outside. Because a house where she grew up in the past happens to be not so far from the spot, Diana cannot help but feel a bit nostalgic, and that prompts her to do something rather odd to the chef’s bafflement.
After finally arriving in Sandringham, Diana is reminded again of how suffocating it has been for her to live as a member of the British royal family. Right from when she enters the estate, she has to submit herself under the stern supervision of Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) as required, and then she also has to deal with the cold indifference from many of the British royal family members during their dinnertime. She has no choice but to try to look fine as much as possible on the surface, but she soon becomes more agitated and suffocated, and then we are served with a cringe-inducing moment involved with a certain psychological disorder of hers.
Feeling more trapped and isolated hour by hour, Diana becomes more conscious of how things have been falling apart in her martial relationship, and she comes to think more of Anne Boleyn after finding a book about Boleyn in her bedroom. Although her situation is relatively less gloomy compared to Boleyn’s in comparison, she discerns a parallel between Boleyn and herself, and she even frequently sees the apparition of Boleyn later in the story, which initially looks amusing but then comes to feel rather heavy-handed in my inconsequential opinion.
At least, she gets some little comfort from a few people who show genuine care and attention to her. As having always been someone to lean on for Diana, Diana’s Royal Dresser willingly gives Diana some pep talk, and the Royal Head Chef also shows support and encouragement when Diana comes down to the kitchen for talking with him over a certain trivial matter. Her two sons sincerely worry about her as shown from their little private night time with their mother, and her husband shows a bit of understanding and compassion on her ongoing personal struggle inside and outside the family, though they remain estranged with each other as before.
Steadily maintaining its detached but sobering mood, the movie presents all these and other moments in the story one after another, and the screenplay by Steven Knight gradually builds up its heroine’s inner conflict and turmoil beneath the surface. Although I have no idea on how close the movie is to her real-life story, Knight’s story simply focuses on its heroine’s increasingly nervous state of mind, and Larraín and his crew members including cinematographer Claire Mathon and composer Jonny Greenwood did a commendable job of presenting that on the screen with palpable emotional effect.
Most of all, the movie is firmly anchored by Kristen Stewart, who will receive an Oscar nomination for giving another stellar performance to be added to her impressive acting career. Although we still often remember her for appearing in those Twilight flicks, we have also been quite impressed by a series of admirable performances from her during last several years, and Stewart surprises us again here in this film. Instead of attempting to imitate her real-life counterpart, she ably embodies her character’s life and personality via details and nuances to be observed and appreciated, and it is constantly compelling to see her deftly going up and down along with her character throughout the movie.
In case of several other notable cast members in the film, they simply fill each own spot around Stewart. Without overshadowing Stewart at all, Jack Farthing, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Sam Harris are all solid in their substantial supporting roles, and Hawkins brings some warmth to a brief intimate scene between her and Stewart later in the story.
On the whole, “Spencer” is another engaging biographical drama film from Larraín, who previously gave us “Jackie” (2016) and “Neruda” (2016). Like these two films, “Spencer” is something to be admired by my brain rather than being embraced by my heart, and I am not totally enthusiastic about it unlike some other critics and reviewers, but I recommend it anyway for its several strong elements including Stewart’s memorable acting. It may require some patience from you as your typical arthouse flick, but I assure you that you will not be disappointed once you accept how it is about as well as what it is about.