Film Review: Spencer is an unconventional tale of tragedy, reinforced by a mesmeric Kristen Stewart

In the opening moments of Pablo Larraín‘s Spencer, his subject – Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart, beyond impressive) – hopes to maintain any shred of autonomy she can through a lifestyle she knows has wildly altered her reality.  Late to a family Christmas celebratory weekend – the film focuses on December 24th-26th in the early 1990’s, when her marriage to Charles was starting to unravel – she stops at a local diner to ask for directions.  She holds herself in a manner that doesn’t separate her from the local patrons, though they, understandably, stop in their tracks.  Moments later, she pulls over on the side of the road where she is spotted by the estate’s chef (Sean Harris).  He wonders why she is driving herself.  “Cars don’t drive on their own”, she retorts.

Perhaps almost perfectly marrying the notion of a subject uncomfortable with the spotlight with an actor of similar disinterest in the fame that comes with high-profile stature, Stewart, an initially unlikely choice to portray “the people’s princess”, is pitch perfect in a role that moves far beyond simple mimicry.  The film itself isn’t a biopic though – the title card calls it “a fable from a true story” – but even in Larraín’s unconventional choice to interpret Diana’s life rather than re-enact it, Stewart’s performance never wavers from evoking the truth.

Given the tragedy that befell Diana some 6 years later, it’s difficult to not watch this film with something of a suspicious gaze as she skulks around the house with an uncertainty, only ever finding moments of joy and comfort when interacting with her young sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry); a gorgeous moment of levity comes when she plays a late night questioning game with them and, for what feels like the first time in the film itself, she sits in a way that suggests the world has literally fallen off her shoulders.  It’s a moment she, and we as viewers, wish would last forever.  The uncertainty that haunts her throughout is amplified by Larraín’s distinct approach in his storytelling, with Johnny Greenwood‘s musical score evoking that sense of unease, whilst cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) dusts the film with a haze that lends the film an almost afterworldly mentality.

The fact that Spencer isn’t a more traditional biopic may irk viewers expecting a conventional narrative, and subtlety isn’t always a practice adhered to throughout – especially during the film’s final moments – but it’s never disrespectful to the memory of such a defiantly beautiful figure, and Stewart, whether she’s a performer you’ve come around to or not (and I can’t stress enough how she’s so far removed from the Twilight franchise that many can’t seem to shake her from), is truly captivating, delivering a performance that lingers with you long after the film has culminated.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Spencer is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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