Ah, is there anything better than gathering with your whole family for Christmas at a remote Sandringham manor, especially among royalty? Well, maybe just about anything would be a better use of time and mental energy but here we are anyway. Director Pablo Larraín continues his expeditions into the lives of real people with Spencer, written by Steven Knight, though this one is introduced as a fable as it does not conform to biopic constructs.
The title stems from Princess Diana's last name, portrayed by Kristen Stewart, who is driving down to spend Christmas with the royal family in 1991, before her divorce from Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). At this point, Diana's dissatisfaction in regard to the marriage is rather clear and she's finding the controlled lifestyle increasingly suffocating which has severe impacts on her mental health, that also affecting her and Charles' sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry).
It'd be easy to understand if people were searching for their biopic and period drama kicks from Spencer but that clearly isn't something that is in the minds of its filmmakers. Very much an isolated and internal character study, there isn't too much pompousness or majesty in the film—instead we as an audience are very much trapped in the situation with Diana, intentionally removed from figures with higher status for most of it. Royal family's new hire, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) comes across as a hostile intruder who's been hired to keep an eye out on her specifically, the house's interiors are cold and vacant, stylist Maggie (Sally Hawkins) is made to be an unreliable presence and only constant warmth comes from somewhat intimate family moments with William and Harry.
Stewart manages to balance all that coldness and warmth in her composed performance. Hard to say if it's a conscious choice but the lack of interest in imitation per se, other than when surrounded by other people, works incredibly well for this kind of semi-fiction portrayal because Diana's real personality was mysterious and also because it conveys how she can't quite be herself in this particular film which is why she's ready to let go. Stewart's outing is also helped by the storytelling through Jacqueline Durran's costumes and Yesim Zolan's set decor which double down on Diana's isolation and broken trust, on top of just looking fantastic like in a certain dancing montage.
DoP Claire Mathon continues her impeccable hot streak with exquisite framing of Stewart in close-ups in 16mm film, as well as breaking down conventions at times with more adventurous camera movements to increase tension when necessary. The camera work is in fact so effective that you do feel Larraín's choice of ghost visions and dreamlike sequences to be detriments. They're also paired with string arrangements from Jonny Greenwood that get too big sometimes considering we're really only in one person's mindset. Good thing is that the story and script prevail in the last 20 or so minutes and Diana's ''escape'' feels like it's closing the arc that we started with, while also taking away the important things in the same way that a viewer hopefully does.
Smileys: Cinematography, costume design, Kristen Stewart, set decoration
Frowneys: Minor issues with directing and score
Now tell us the dessert budget 'cause hot damn!