Two years after showing Ema at the BFI London Film Festival, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín returns to the event with Spencer, a biographical psychological drama starring Kristen Stewart as Lady Diana Spencer. The film takes place at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate and follows Diana as she spends an uncomfortable Christmas with the Royal Family.
When the film opens, everything at Sandringham is in order: all tasks are performed with military precision, the supplies are fresh and of the highest quality, and the Royal Family arrive in a controlled convoy. However, Diana is driving herself and on her own, resorting to a roadside eatery for directions. Despite her initial coquettish awkwardness, her chaotic state of mind soon echoes the separation between her and the family that sets the tone for the film. Not to mention that there is a thick cloud of tension in the air that puts Diana off eating with the family and makes her late for public engagements, with her marital problems being the implied root of her unhappiness.
Amid the domineering and quietly intimidating presence of the Royal Family, everyone seems to be content with abiding by ‘ fun traditions’ that ensure that everybody ‘enjoys’ Christmas such as weighing themselves upon arrival, church services and pheasant shooting. With little to no escape and an overwhelming emphasis on privacy, it is no surprise that Diana chafes against the suffocating surroundings. Instead, she focuses on being a mother to her young sons and resorts to confiding with members of the household staff, namely seamstress Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and head chef Darren (Sean Harris). In addition, her growing discomfort feeds her urge to truly express herself, which results in some surprising dialogue, despite the underlying threat that ‘they (specifically the Royal Family) hear everything’.
Despite her strained relationship with the Royal Family, Larraín’s psychological imagining of this Christmas paints Diana as a martyr of sorts, with her mental and physical health struggles becoming somewhat weapons against her – so much so that duty-bound household members and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) treat her with pity. Larraín brews Diana’ inner turmoil through uncomfortable dinner scenes and an eerie sequence around her childhood home but evokes such a feeling of doom and gloom, which is exacerbated by a relatively monotone narrative that causes Spencer to slow down to a frustratingly weary pace. Coupled with a fragile direction, Larraín plays with the audience’s perception of how a very public family not only treats a scandalous matter but also an ostracised and high-profile member with mixed results.
Despite this, Stewart stands proudly as Spencer‘s leading lady and wonderfully anchors the narrative. Combining an expressive performance with nuance and delicate physical touches, her compelling presence retains the audience’s attention through Diana’s ordeal. However, the overwhelming attention showered upon her character easily overshadows supporting actors Harris and Hawkins, as well as Timothy Spall as the ever-watchful Major Gregory, who all offer brief glimpses of normalcy amid the mundane surroundings.
Overall, Spencer is a fraught drama that suffers from its slow pacing and uncompromising tone but Stewart delivers a staggering performance that demands attention during the awards season.
Director: Pablo Larraín, Steve Knight (screenwriter)
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing
Runtime: 111 minutes