My mother is absolutely obsessed with the Royal Family. The intrigue, mystery, extravagance, drama, strange practices, rules, traditions, quirks, and even the general consensus that it’s an entirely obsolete and unnecessary thing to have in the 21st century are all things that absolutely transfix her. This, as with so many other Americans who have no real stake in the matter, began with the media frenzy that was Princess Diana. I grew up with the essence of Diana pervading the walls of my very American family home, with VHS tapes of documentaries, books, etc. Even my mother’s wedding dress was directly inspired by Diana’s wedding dress from her 1981 Royal Wedding to Prince Charles. Needless to say, the release of The Crown and now Spencer has inspired a lot more Diana love in recent months, and a rift formed between my mother and I once she realized I was getting to see Spencer before her.
And she’s even angrier now that I’ve told her it’s truly one of the best films of the year, and definitely my favorite of Film Fest 919.
Set during the Christmas Holiday of 1991, Spencer follows a 30-year-old Diana (Kristen Stewart), 10 years into her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), amid cheating and divorce rumors in-and-about the world press. Long since growing cold to her older, traditionalist husband, Diana struggles with the increased stress of public life and, more importantly, public scrutiny, as she tries to survive the rigidly structured, highly intense holiday, and comes to terms with the reality of her failing marriage.
Simply put, Spencer is one of the most sumptuous films I’ve ever seen, and certainly one of the best biopics of the last decade, really up there with…well…Pablo Larraín’s other biopic, Jackie with a career best performance from Natalie Portman. Larraín doesn’t look at the grand picture in his biopics, and they’re all the better for them. So many Oscar-bait biopics these days focus so heavily on cramming as much of someone’s story into a single film that we lose so much of the nuance and understanding of the person being profiled that it feels more like a dramatized Wikipedia page than anything else. Larraín’s and writer Steven Knight’s approach to Spencer, focuses less on the events as they actually happened, and takes creative liberties to the narrative’s best interest. I doubt Diana had a hallucination of ripping her pearl necklace off at Christmas Eve dinner and eating the pearls in front of the Royals, but it helps illustrate the mental strain that Diana faced within her in-laws. Who knows if she played menial childhood games with William and Harry after bedtime, but it helps contextualize and illustrate a mother’s love for her children that we know she had to spare for her sons. I don’t need this to be Diana by the book, I don’t even need it to be a flattering portrait of the Princess of Wales, I just need to understand the woman, which is truly surefire with Larraín.
And what understanding Stewart imbues to the character of Diana here. Lacking any grand establishing context, we’re thrown pretty much directly into the story with a supposed understanding that Diana is nearing the end of her marriage, and that she is in a weakened state because of it. There was never a moment where I didn’t get absolutely everything I needed from Stewart, and she brings forth both a tragic meekness, and a frustrating stubbornness about her that both stresses me out completely and opens the door to sympathize with her as she navigates a situation that she truly dreads being in, likening it to torture. Any immature notions of Stewart not being a good actress, perhaps the best actress of her generation, because of some teen romance film that she did a decade ago that will pay her bills for life, melt away with the Northern England fog in Spencer.
At first, I was somewhat bummed that Mica Levi wasn’t reuniting with Larraín to compose the score for Spencer after their magnificent score to Jackie, which blended fluttery fantasy with an almost horror-like underscoring that complimented Larraín’s luscious direction and Portman’s stunning performance. My fears were quelled almost immediately when Jonny Greenwood’s score kicked in during the opening scenes of Spencer, unleashing a new, but perhaps even more fitting tone to the film at hand here. There’s a jazzy smoothness that almost resembles that aurally of a 1940s film noir, traversing the shadowy, dark alleys that are the hallways of Sandringham Estate; being stalked by royal minders calculating your every move and keeping tabs on every breath you take. It’s punctuated by sequences of eloquent grandeur in the interims, which create a surprisingly cohesive, if very starkly toned musical score that compliments every feeling and fear perfectly.
Shot by Clare Mathon (frequent collaborator with Céline Sciamma, most famously on Portrait of a Lady on Fire as well as Mati Diop’s Atlantics), Spencer is yet again another absolutely luscious, sumptuous, gritty, elegantly shot film that just further cements Mathon as one of the most talented burgeoning cinematographers of her generation. A master with the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, she manages the task of making an oxymoron out of the format in creating a vast, open world that never feels constrained by its narrow image, while also utilizing it for the more important purposes of intense, uneasy intimacy. Mathon turns the extravagant hallways of Sandringham to a house of horrors, devoid of any beauty or wonder in a way a humble civilian would initially see them as. Vast, rolling landscapes transform themselves into metaphorical minefields for Diana to traverse, and the outer beauty, while present, clear, and gorgeously shot on both 35mm and 16mm film, is lost in the process of the settings’ dead heart and blood-stained hands.
And then there is the production and costume design, to which I say: holy fucking shit. Every dress, jacket, lamp, curtain, dish, pearl, thread is accounted for with stunning precision and intention. And like Mathon’s cinematography, all of the lush, extravagant adornments that are objectively the best I’ve seen this year, are lost in the context of Spencer revealing itself to be a thriller about a woman’s gaslighting from her in-laws, blending in for Guy Hendrix Dyas’s production design to feel more like Hill House than a royal estate, and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes to feel more like straitjackets than gorgeous couture gowns. It all works against the best interest of themselves, and it fits what Spencer is aiming for with a flooring fidelity.
Spencer really is the biopic to end biopics, and I don’t see why anyone would really want to try to top this one with whatever Wikipedia-ass studio biopic they have in store at this point. There’s simply nothing anyone can really do at this point that comes close to the things that Larraín is doing with biopics anymore. He and everyone involved find the perfect balance between historically-accurate documentation and artistically-free depictions of a subject’s inner workings that can defy logic and traditional film structures. Stewart gives the defining performance of a (hopefully) long career, and every single base of the film is so expertly covered that it’s hard to find a real flaw in this crown jewel (almost like the Cullinan Diamond, which Queen Elizabeth II still has in her possession after stealing it from South Africa.) of a film. All hail the true Queen.
In theaters November 5th, 2021.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
For more information, head to NEON’s official Spencer website.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.