The movie is telling us about Diana, Princess of Wales, who tries to cope with traditions and expectations throughout the course of three days spent at Sandringham estate over Christmas. The news that Pablo Larran would be directing a biopic about Diana, Princess of Wales was a significant thing for Pablo Larran fans. With a strong precedent in 2016’s Jackie demonstrating Larran’s ability to tell “true stories” movie the prospect was enticing, and it became even more so when other names were attached, including Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight authoring the script, cinematography by Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics), and creators including Toni Erdmann director Maren Ade. Spencer seemed like it could be a very personal project, or at very least, an intriguing one, on paper, especially with Kristen Stewart cast in the lead role. Thankfully, the movie does not let you down.
There are many wonderful aspects to the picture, including Mathon’s superb photography, but it’s easy to pick out the two best aspects. Stewart is a sight to behold as Diana, not least because she is playing a role who is so unlike the quiet, introvert we are used to seeing her play. Diana possesses such traits, but there is something about her enthusiasm and eagerness to speak honestly, even openly, to anyone and everyone that suggests her extroverted personality. This is one of the things that makes Stewart’s character interesting to watch, and she knows precisely what she’s doing. The film’s score, composed by Jonny Greenwood, is the film’s second highlight. The combination of short, repetitive harpsichord runs and dreamy strings creates a tone that is both regal and passionate; another another paradox that the picture revels in.
Of course, Diana is rarely alone, and the encounters are tumultuous. Diana has several very enjoyable discussions with either Charles or William, both of whom appear to have grudgingly embraced the load that Diana cannot. There are also fantastic movie, though not entirely convincing, therapy sessions with supporting characters played by Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins, allowing Knight to stretch his creative legs to good effect. The use of Timothy Spall’s man-in-the-background-cum-cartoon-villain, who wields a sinister power over Diana, however, undermines all of this.
The end result is a picture that is enthralling, emotional, and informative. However, it does feature a few genre cliches as well as fundamental structural tricks, which you’d expect from Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour) rather than Knight. The script cleans up the story, making it feel more satisfactory and sanitized, which contrasts with Larran’s style, which is typically more impassioned and less tidy. The song playing in the background could just as well be Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” as Diana races away into freedom with her sons in tow (although as it happens, the musical choice is another uninspired and heavily cringy choice). It’s a distinctly Hollywood conclusion to a picture that feels like it’s vying to be an auteur’s vision.
Spencer lacks the kinetic energy of Larran’s previous works; it fails to portray Ema’s breath-taking attack or Jackie’s drowning emotion. The picture does constrain the director by prioritizing a decidedly remarkable central performance. Emotion overflows over the sewn-together curtains of what could have been an unremarkable film on the few occasions Larran’s creative instincts surface (see 2013’s Diana for details), delivering a peek of the violent tempest simmering within. These are the moments that elevate Spencer from a solid biopic to something truly remarkable.