‘Spencer’ Is A Nuanced Depiction Led By An Impeccable Kristen Stewart: LFF Review

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Spencer

This film is being screened as part of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and you can find all of our coverage of the festival here.


Directed by Pablo Larraín and written by Steven Knight, Spencer is the eighth cinematic depiction of the People’s Princess, and is a prominent contender in the discussion for the 94th Academy Awards.

★★★★★

Set during three days over Christmas 1991, Spencer focuses on Princess Diana’s perspective as she decides to leave not only Prince Charles, but the royal household. Kristen Stewart stars as a frustrated Diana who, caged in an uncompromising environment, questions her role as an outsider.

Accuracy is not always relevant when understanding why a movie is effective. What is always necessary is truth, and Spencer’s themes are true to real life. Central to the movie is control. From the first act, the audience gets a typically austere depiction of royal life; from rigorous preparations, to seemingly pointless and invasive practices, and tradition reigns supreme at Sandringham Estate.

The embodiment of this principle is Timothy Spall as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, whose job it is to protect the Crown and watch over Diana. Spall is appropriately disturbing in this role, acting as a personification of Diana’s oppression. Always hovering in the back, never imposing but always intrusive, he  could be interpreted as a characterisation of Diana’s own struggle. An example of this is when he catches Diana binge eating. Throughout the film, but in this scene in particular, the vulnerability of Kristen Stewart’s performance is put in stark contrast with the immovable elements that surround her. Gregory shows contempt for what is perceived as her weakness and her lack of control. This is fascinating when contrasted with Diana’s perspective, where her relationship with food is depicted as both a desperate attempt to retain some control and a consuming disorder.

In a similar way, resemblance and mannerisms are only marginally relevant in a portrayal of a real person. This is especially true when the character being portrayed is as iconic as Diana Spencer, where an excessive focus on accuracy might result in a mechanic performance. Luckily, Stewart is perfect as Diana. More precisely, she is perfect as this version of Diana, a version where her spark is dulled by a suffocating existence. Hints of her younger self are revealed, but only briefly. Stewart goes beyond the ‘sad princess’ trope, depicting the icon as a fully fleshed out person. Anger and frustration are not neglected at any point, rendering Diana’s longing for normalcy entirely more realistic.


Though the heart of this movie is in the performance, the script and direction set it up for success.


Yet while Stewart’s work in creating this version of Diana on screen is commendable, her efforts to capture the real-life person are equally impressive. Firstly, her accent is great. It is hard to stress just how important this part of the film is, and just how much rests on such a technical detail. Stewart’s performance is brilliant in two ways. She transforms without losing authenticity, while also infusing just enough of herself into the character to distinguish her from others.

The austerity of the system in which she is placed is enhanced when compared to the warmth of her interactions with other characters. Her friendship with Maggie, a member of staff, tethers Diana to reality. Played by an always welcome Sally Hawkins, Maggie is understanding, loving and empathetic. Yet their friendship is bittersweet. Maggie works for Diana, and for much of the film her intentions are unclear. While the ending clarifies their standing, her relationship acts as a reminder of what Diana is lacking; authenticity.

Another source of warmth are William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). Because of their age and innocence, as well as their relationship with their mother, they act as another anchor for Diana. This, again, comes at a cost. Mother and children are only afforded brief slices of normalcy, amongst all the rigidness. Yet, however brief those moments might be, they infuse the film with genuine joy, which provides stakes for the protagonist. They show what Diana is craving, and this is key to understanding how trapped she feels.

Though the heart of this movie is in the performance, the script and direction set it up for success. The fact that Spencer takes place in such a short period of time is a wise choice. It allows Stewart to dig deeper in her performance, capturing the nuances of a very specific moment in time for Diana. The limited timeframe also spares the audience from having to witness a re-enactment of more notorious moments from her life.

The film prominently features connections between Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) and the protagonist, from Diana reading the book about her life to scenes reminiscent of Marian apparitions. The latter add a surrealist element to the picture, which helps to characterise Diana’s unravelling. Combined with the diffused lighting (part of Claire Mathon’s stunning cinematography), Boleyn’s presence is an omen of imminent danger. The parallelism makes a compelling point about the restrictive role of women in royalty and, though it might appear as an oversimplification for some, it is effective in the context of the film. These elements are essential in crafting a creative historical film that engages audience emotionally. Because despite it being a snapshot of an important historical moment, Spencer is first and foremost a personal story.

The Verdict

Subtle yet deeply affecting, Kristen Stewart is heart wrenching as Diana. Her approach to the role fits seamlessly in a film that is directed with purpose by Pablo Larraín, making for one of the best historical films of recent times. Its themes of confinement and warmth make this an authentic depiction, with Stewart’s performance elevating an already promising script. There is no doubt that Spencer will remain a front runner in the Oscar race.

Words by Elisabetta Pulcini


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