Ash’s review published on Letterboxd:
“What’s happened to make you so sad?”
Spencer is an astonishing work, blending reality into fiction as it paints a fragmented image of Diana. A fractured self-portrait that recognises the royal torment endured by Diana, but simultaneously adds to it with the projection of Stewart’s own experiences as an actress, casting a blanket of meta-relevance over itself; Stewart is strictly embedded into her piercing performance as the titular princess. She fades into the role so endearingly that you often forget you’re watching an actress play out her lines in a film; rather, a vignette into the past, compound with additional moments of fiction. Stewart’s canvas is her performance, and her intended painting is that of Diana, but with the brush strokes that form her creation as whole, there’s a lot of herself in this transfixing lead performance.
“The thing is, Diana, there has to be two of you. There's two of me, there's two of father, two of everyone. There's the real one and the one they take pictures of. You have to be able to make your body do things you hate.”
Larraín’s vision is a hauntingly despondent cinematic nightmare. People viewed, not as people, but as a form of currency, cultural footnotes on history and culture rather than individuals, looked to as empty vessels for cultural currency devoid of any real dimensions or emotional values; perhaps, with some of them, the façade has prevailed for too long that they’ve sunken fully into the affectation to become it. But for Diana, the only adult among the royals who seems to display a dimensional sense of normalcy and empathetic humbleness, her conflict with the tormenting duality that far exceeds who she truly is at heart, is a constant trepidation for her life and spirit.
“Here, in this house, there is no future. Past and present are the same thing.”
Set over a Christmas weekend, it traps us in Diana’s nightmarishly haunting and melancholic mindset throughout her time there being in the proximity of the dreadful royal family, built on the understanding of the already existing tensions between her and her tragic ordeal with them. Despite taking place only over a few days, it repeatedly feels like being stuck inside a perpetual, delirious nightmare, suffocating, struggling for a breath of air, attempting to endure the emotional torment and agony of being in the presence of such apathetic, lifeless and parasitic company. Beat for beat, the film envelops itself in intensity around Diana’s poignant, suffering presence among the other royals, tensions rising as every cadence of her angst, desolation, weltschmerz, and worry is felt and splattered across the screen with Mathon’s illusive, dreamlike photography.
“This was once Queen Victoria’s room. It’s all of her skin floating around in here. She wore black 40 years after her husband died. That’s love isn’t it?”
I definitely do understand some of the criticisms the film has been getting, some of which discuss Diana being treated as currency, instead of a person, with all these stories and films that involve her or exploit her unfortunate experiences, and that’s a fairly valid point to make about this film, or in that regard, any works that include her. I do think that seems to be a common problem in the current landscape that should be addressed.
What I do find beautiful about Spencer is the humanity it brings to Diana, that all the other royal characters in the film are truthfully devoid of. It’s a humanity that only flairs in certain other characters that pop up through the film, like Sean Harris’ Darren (the Royal Head Chef) and Sally Hawkins’ Maggie (the Royal dresser), as well as young William and Harry - both still youthful enough to be unaffected and unchanged by their eventual royal fates. There’s further humanity in Larraín’s involvement of historical figures; Anne Boleyn appears to Diana as a hallucination in certain scenes, a tragic comparison in their devastatingly kindred fates. Larraín’s use of Anne Boleyn, I think, speaks for itself, but there’s a certain scene where this fictional vision of Boleyn inspires a revelation in Diana that allows her a cathartic moment of liberation, which is affectingly beautiful, especially in a historical story - based on real life - that feels so trapped by the reality that she never got the liberation she deserved from the anguish she suffered.
Spencer is one of the year’s best. There’s so much to appreciate that I’ve yet to even mention one of the best parts of the movie, Jonny Greenwood’s majestic score. Greenwood is a constant wonder with the music he creates for film, and his score for Spencer is a crowning achievement; purposefully uncomfortable at times, emotionally exposed at other times, just truly hypnotic in such masterful strides. There’s some truly astonishingly directed sequences through the film that are lived out so vividly by Kristen Stewart’s career-best performance. Every scene Diana gets with her boys is so especially moving and heartfelt. The scene between the three of them after she wakes them up so they can play a game together is my favourite of the bunch, probably even my favourite of the film after the scene where she visits her old home and has that affecting moment of revelation, which is one of my favourite sequences all year. The dialogue between Diana and her two sons in the scene where they play the game is so simple and straightforward, but so genuinely and fully conveys the love she has for them, the love of her motherhood, and their love for her, it plays out so compassionately.
I’m just still in awe of Spencer and these many small moments of wonder over the beauty of the craft at work. Few moments have held me as stunned and tight-lipped this year as certain scenes in this film. One of the best this year, and Stewart is at the centre of what makes Spencer such a riveting exposition.