Pablo Larraín doesn’t approach his biographical subject manner in any traditional sense.
His 2016 film Jackie, which was nominated for three Oscars, followed Natalie Portman as the recently widowed wife of United States President John F. Kennedy in the immediate days after his assassination and took a more artistic stance on relatively recent historical record.
The second in what is expected to be a trilogy of uniquely crafted biopics, Spencer, bears the Larraín’s overall aesthetic but is considerably more avantgarde and brooding in tone, a sort of neo-horror drama of melancholia in the British countryside.
Likely Academy Award nominee Kristen Stewart portrays Princess Diana during a Christmas holiday with the royal family at the rural Sandringham estate, where her stress and fatigue from media scrutiny has caused mental health issues and rumors of impropriety have led her to decide to end her marriage to Prince Charles.
Spencer isn’t simply unique for focusing on a brief moment in Diana’s tragic life, but it’s in the way every second is painstakingly captured to isolate, frighten and turn Stewart’s character against herself.
It’s pseudo-psychological thriller masquerading as character driven period drama and Larraín methodically tears down Diana’s walls through imaginative allegorical imagery. At one point, a dead bird lying in the road positioned in the front of Larraín’s frame is meant to stand in for Diana herself as the royal convoy drives over the camera and bird without a care in the world.
Most will comment on Stewart’s transformation into Diana as a character-based one. Her accent work is nothing short of excellent and the light airy quality Stewart gives to her affectations is only slightly muffled by the hesitancy and care with which Diana often uses the little words she speaks in the film.
But the more astonishing work done is how Stewart morphs herself physically within the moment, with her body constantly skittish and on the edge as if Diana will recoil herself at the slightest pin drop. It’s remarkably considered in expressing the fragility of Diana’s mental state and her wavering self-confidence, especially when she feels she’s being watched.
The ensemble cast takes considerable lengths to distance themselves from Stewart’s performance, even so much as Larraín to keep the actress away from preparations and rehearsals until the very last moment to maximize the chilling cold between Diana and members of the royal family.
All the supporting performances help build Stewart up, but it’s Sally Hawkins’ pivotal role as one of Diana’s dressers that solidifies and crystalizes Stewart’s Diana as the single best work of her career and one likely to carry her to a Best Actress Oscar.
Claire Mathon’s cinematography has a distinct faded quality to it, as if glimpsing through an old photo moving in real time and Larraín’s eye for placing the camera uncomfortably close to Stewart’s face to press the emotion or exceedingly wide for artistic effect makes for a constantly striking work of art to look at.
Paired with Jonny Greenwood’s cutting and wave-balancing orchestral score, Spencer often feels like a ghost story playing out in real time.
The film’s unique style opting to show the audience through visual language rather than scenes of intense dialogue will likely make it inaccessible for some audiences who need a simpler story and understandable character beats. There isn’t an “Oscar reel” moment for Stewart where Diana lashes out physically or screams emotionally at Charles and the Queen.
Diana’s pain is expressed in what she refuses to say or cannot bring herself to express and the specter of Anne Boleyn haunting her every action over the course of the weekend can be one of the more confusing elements of the storyline for those who don’t buy in early.
A haunting portrait of looming tragedy amid callousness in a regal backdrop, Spencer is unquestionably one of the year’s top films, a major contender come awards season and something the most ardent of cinephiles should seek out in theaters now or at home viewing early next year.