Spencer [TIFF21 Review]

From the very first frame of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, Diana stands out in the sea of monotone colours that is the Royal Family. Whether it’s a bright red coat or a yellow skirt, she is impossible to miss amongst the brown and grey of the members of her family. No matter how much she would love to not, everywhere she goes she attracts attention. The lights that never stop shining on her, the cameras that are always there, mostly unseen and yet implied, constant supervision she can’t escape. And yet, she just wants to be normal, to escape. To become just another monotone colour amongst the world. And yet, we all know too well that, even after escaping, that will simply never be the case.

Everything in Larraín’s filmography has led him to direct this film. This is the product of a director at the height of his craft, from the very first frame to the last, he is in perfect control. Everything in Spencer has a purpose. Nothing is left to chance, the precise script and direction prove that this was the film that Larraín has always meant to direct. Everything before that was just a prelude for this film. 

Spencer follows the Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) as she navigates a precarious Christmas holiday with the Royal Family at their Sandringham estate in Norfolk — a moment that will set Diana on a path to independence, however tragically short-lived.

Diana’s story is one of tragedy, one that we all know how will end. Spencer never claims to be the truth, the film opens with it saying that it is a fable, making it clear that this is an interpretation of the weekend that would lead to Diana choosing to leave. A choice that would eventually lead to her death, a choice that she made to save her life and in the end, didn’t change anything.

I have sung the praises of Kristen Stewart for years, making sure that people would stop judging her just because of the Twilight films. If anything, Stewart has developed an impressive filmography since stepping away from the role that shot her to stardom. She has proven time and time again that she is an actress of incredible calibre and her turn in Spencer is proof that the actress is more than capable of transforming when she needs to. Her performance is one full of nuance and incredible restrain until she just breaks everything and lets herself completely loose. It’s a performance that will completely captivate you, a performance that will earn her not only recognition but also awards in the process. 

There is so much to unpack in this film, from the hints to her tragic ending or the comparison made between Diana’s life and Anne Boleyn’s, Larraín never overplays his hand. From the very first frame, the film hints subtly at Diana’s tragic end with the dead peasant on the road that trucks almost run over. Every time we see Diana in a car, she is at her happiest, free and yet, we all know how this will end. It’s subtle but efficient, it’s telling us everything we need to know without actually doing it. And that is what this film is so good at, it gives us so much information without us even realizing it, not until you walk out of there and spent time analyzing it. 

Spencer is one of those films that stays with you. It is a love letter to Diana, her love for her children, her love for her people, but also shows her struggle with mental health and her eating disorder. It’s a woman whose freedom was destroyed the moment she married in the Royal Family and whose husband loved someone else and never hid it. It’s a story of struggles and the film never hides away the ugly part of the Princesse, instead of showing us every facet of her. Diana was flawed and too often the media forgets that, but Spencer doesn’t.

This is a film that will make noise, a film that proves that Larraín knows how to handle not only biopics (after the incredible Jackie) but that he is at the height of his power. It’s a film that stays with you, a film that I sat with for almost a week before sitting down and writing this one. A film that you can’t forget walking out, a love letter but also so real. With a transcendent performance from Stewart, that seems likely to be in the running for an Academy Award, and a score that just keeps you on the edge of your seat, Spencer might just be a masterpiece.