Kristen Stewart and her latest subject, Princess Diana, are so much more than mere cultural icons.
That seems to be the thesis of Pablo Larraín’s latest biopic, “Spencer” (2021). It takes place over three days: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and — one of my new favorite absurdly British terms — Boxing Day at the royal Sandringham Estate in 1991. Over this family retreat that the young princess hates, Diana must learn to cope with the intense pressures of being both a royal in-law and widely beloved celebrity.
Biopics seem to automatically be Oscar bait. See the awards successes of “Judy” (2019), “Rocketman” (2019), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) and Larraín’s Natalie Portman-led “Jackie” (2016). They have become almost lazy cop-outs for studios, directors and actors to gain prestige while they depict their legendary, borderline mythical main characters with supposedly new vulnerability. A Princess Diana biopic, then, is arguably even more of a cop-out: she’s had quite a resurgence of late, with the recent success of “The Crown” (2016–) adding to Netflix documentaries, CNN specials and even a musical. A Diana biopic is, to put it bluntly, the easy, trendy choice.
Unfortunately for those of us that despise such films, “Spencer” is outstanding. Larraín is careful not to show the angelic, deified Diana that has become so commonplace in modern retellings of the famed story. This Diana, as much a creation of Stewart as Larraín, is just as flawed as she is emotionally troubled. Instead of the typical unrelenting pity modern depictions tend to emphasize, “Spencer” has moments that make us cringe at her behavior. It seems to genuinely show a new side of its trendy protagonist.
The film is also not limited by genre; in fact, it flirts with the psychological thriller. Jonny Greenwood’s exhilarating score emphasizes the haunting chaos of Diana’s troubled mind. The production consistently frames Sandringham as both a castle and a prison, surrounded by a foggy moor-like lawn and barbed wire. Cinematographer Claire Mathon, of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), takes great care in her framing of Diana; she is both small in comparison to the towering walls of the estate but also literally trapped by the shot in more intense moments. For a film that so frequently follows a Diana in motion, there is frequently nowhere for her to go.
Indeed, all the individual elements of production are absolutely stellar. The costumes are also worth mentioning, though that seems a necessary requisite of anything Diana-related. However, all seem secondary compared to the absolute beast of a performance given by Kristen Stewart. This is no mere impersonation of a historical figure, but rather a compelling emotional portrayal of a tragic character. Stewart’s emotional range is impeccable, and over the course of the film she gracefully shifts from anxiety to happiness to rage to fear. Her movements are perhaps even more impressive than her words: Diana’s emotions are better expressed through the lightness with which she touches her sons or the heaviness in her feet as she stomps to some dreadful event. There’s one sequence of her dancing in various corridors that, and this is an embarrassing admission, gave me chills. Her performance transcends the Oscar buzz it’s generating; it is, as (verified) Twitter account “Awards Daily” put it, “Her Diana is one for the ages.”
The decision to cast American iconoclast Stewart, of “Twilight” (2008–2012) infamy, as the graceful and famously caring late princess was one that turned a few heads. The comparisons between the two victims of our collective obsession with celebrity are fairly obvious — both figures’ personal lives were made excruciatingly public by the houndish press and paparazzi. The obviousness of such comparisons has become a bit of an annoyance for Stewart, who seems to have been asked about them excessively. In one interview, when asked the question, she replied, simply, “Google that s—. I’m done.” Fair enough.
All in all, “Spencer” is a visually stunning, aurally stimulating, and emotionally intense biopic that could arguably be considered a psychological thriller. The direction is calculated, the cinematography is rich, the soundtrack is eerie, the production design is gorgeous and, above all, the acting is superb. Yes, this film is awards bait that finally completes Kristen Stewart’s redemption arc. It’s also a movie made to near perfection.