TIFF 2021: Spencer Review

Star persona and character perfectly align

“I’m going to create the greatest Diana Spencer the world has ever seen,” proclaims Emma Corrin.

“Hold my beer,” replies Kristen Stewart.

 

Kristen Stewart surely gives the performance of the year as Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales in Pablo Larraín’s hypnotic biopic Spencer. It’s a compliment of high praise if one considers how heartbreakingly good Corrin portrayed the People’s Princess on the most recent season of The Crown, winning a Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice Award, and with an Emmy likely along the way.

Corrin is lucky that The Crown isn’t eligible for Oscars, since a case of dueling Dianas could be a toss-up. Taken in close proximity, one can’t help but appreciate the unique interpretations that both actors afford Spencer. However, Spencer arguably offers the most substantial and dexterously layered performance of Stewart’s career to date. She deserves a crown, even if she’s as uncomfortable with its weight as Diana was.

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Jackie’s sister

Spencer is a thematic sequel to Larraín’s masterful Jackie, my pick for the best movie of 2016. Like Jackie, Spencer burrows deep into the mind of its fabled heroine while spinning biopic convention on its head. Stewart’s turn as Diana, much like Natalie Portman as the regal Jackie O, offers a respectful yet bold interpretation. She removes the subject from her pedestal and explores the mythology that makes her immortal. This tragic fable imagines three hellish days in Diana’s life. She spends Christmas with the Royal Family at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate.

Even though the Queen’s sprawling abode neighbours the Spencers’ old estate, Diana can’t seem to find her way. In an opening sequence that humanizes Spencer with a tongue-in-cheek nod to the vulnerability that made Diana far more real and relatable than the stuffy Windsors, she parks her Porsche at a pub and swoops through the door. As she humbly makes her way to the counter to ask for directions, forks and knives drop. Her fellow Brits look up from their fish n chips in disbelief. Diana is one of the most instantly recognizable figures of her day—the truly viral celebrity long before social media made stars like Stewart duck for cover.

The media spotlight is, as we know, Diana’s tragedy. But Spencer also positions it as her undoing. Erratic behaviour, including obsessively knicking her father’s coat from a scarecrow, delays her arrival. It’s all balderdash in her mind, but these actions are far from the perfect score on the Balmoral test with which Diana won the Royals’ approval.

 

Upstairs/Downstairs

Larraín offers the flipside of the life of the Royal Family that one sees in The Crown. Spencer largely takes place in dressing rooms, corridors, and fields. Glimpses of the Queen are as rare in Spencer as they are in real life. (Although Liz II comes off rather well despite the coldness to Diana that seemed palpable in the media.) Diana seems more comfortable in the “downstairs” spaces than the “upstairs” ones, though. Her private room is a sanctuary away from prying eyes. Her every move is under surveillance, either from the unseen paparazzi that Major Alistair Gregory (the great Timothy Spall) reminds Diana are supposedly lurking in the fields. The media’s telephoto lenses are no match for the Major’s own Big Brotherly skills. He sees and hears everything at Sandringham.

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Diana’s only confidant is her dresser, Maggie (a radiant Sally Hawkins). Diana and Maggie chat like sisters. Close in age and both in perceptible agreement about the Royals’ senseless extravagance, Maggie is the only person with whom Diana can be herself. Trying on an assortment of dresses that were pre-selected for her every meal and scheduled activity during the holiday, one can’t help but see the exhaustion that Stewart wears on her face as a familiar feeling. The Christmas holiday has the energy of a publicity junket.

Hawkins, however, is a force of reassuring humility and grace. This performance is so rich that one can feel both Diana and Stewart feeding off Maggie/Hawkins. Hawkins carries Maggie with the confidence of a woman who begrudgingly understands Britain’s class system and knows how to stickhandle it. As Maggie opens up to Diana, she’s the one beacon that suggests that love resides in Sandringham.

 

A Food-on-Film Feast

Sandringham’s cavernous halls suggest that the Royal family consumes more than it gives. All guests must weigh in and weigh out at Sandringham to keep up the family tradition that says that one must gain at least three pounds over Christmas or else one didn’t have fun. At only a few stone with her jewelry on, the thin Diana barely has enough meat on her bones to go around as the Royals prepare to gobble her up.

However, Spencer is a feeding frenzy. Larraín’s use of food-on-film delivers an astute entry point into Diana’s complicated psyche. Ditto all that makes the Royals upside down. Talk of sandwich hours and organic brunches underscore the opulence of goodies with which the three-day buffet exploits the colonial coin, while armouries of cooked lobsters and fresh oysters leave one hoping that the estate has contemporary plumbing.

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Diana, meanwhile, shudders at the thought of eating at the Royals’ unbearably silent table. Spoons clack on soup bowls as everybody sups and nobody talks. It’s enough to drive a person mad. Diana feels all eyes on her as she sits, dressed in her assigned gown complete with the set of pearls Charles bought her. He got the same set for Camilla, and everyone but him knows it.

As Diana unravels before her bowl of creamy green soup, she clutches her pearls and shudders. Diana’s battle with the soupspoon and her will to swallow her courage spoonful by slurpy spoonful is possibly Stewart’s finest work yet. It illustrates how deeply she taps into Diana’s psyche. One can feel the weight of a thousand eyes on Diana as Stewart squirms in her seat. She registers Diana’s discomfort palpable. The sense of unease never leaves Spencer.

 

Star Persona and Performance Align

Larraín fills Spencer with these kind of hypnotic interludes. The pace and style of Spencer evokes Jackie’s hypnotic atmosphere as time and consciousness blur feverishly to the tunes of Johnny Greenwood’s disquieting jazz score. While the film itself doesn’t quite match the bar set by Jackie—I must admit that I stan Jackie pretty hard—the character study is more honed and focused. Larraín affords Stewart ample moments to chew the scenery—quite literally, as noted above—and nearly every frame of the film hinges on Stewart’s implosive and introspective performance.

Moreover, the best performances are those that find a perfect fusion between character and star persona. (Think comeback kid Renée Zellweger putting it all on the line with Garland’s attempted return in Judy.) Diana’s own challenges with the media have obvious parallels with Stewart’s stardom. Few actors of any generation inspire such massive mobs of screaming fans. Every aspect of Stewart’s life, like Diana’s, is under the microscope. Every public outing is a viral affair and every date is everyone’s business. Stewart has never been shy about her discomfort with the spotlight and her frustration with the intrusions into her personal life.

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However, she channels the weight of celebrity into a fully lived-in Diana. Spencer doesn’t necessarily write anything new into the Diana lore, but this interpretation feels like the truest, most authentic, and most compassionate tribute to the woman that one could create. Stewart’s Diana is moody, at times juvenile, spoiled, and bratty. But these erratic shifts in temperament merely reveal the cracks in the Royal veneer that Diana upheld for so long. They’re also punches of Stewart’s no-bullshit attitude that let her break the armour in ways that Diana could not.

 

“All I Need Is You…”

Stewart also affords Diana another tribute: the chance for the world to see a mother’s love. Amid the gloomy brittleness of Sandringham, Diana finds joy when she catches moments alone with her young sons. A clandestine gift exchange on Christmas, as opposed to the family’s traditional Christmas Eve unwrapping, brings a happy, joyful spirit to the surface. Unironically, the film ends with the jubilant power cheese of “All I Need Is a Miracle” by Mike + The Mechanics as Diana rejoices with her boys, fried chicken, and five minutes of freedom. One can only imagine the joy that was stolen by robbing Diana of her private life.

 

Spencer screens at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theatres this fall.

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