The year is 2008. Twilight is on our screen and Kristen Stewart stars in the lead role as Bella Swan. I knew then that she was a star. Vindication is SWEET. Before I even really get into why Spencer I have got to say that Kristen Stewart deserves an apology. I have been on her team since Twilight (2008) but I had my first glimpse of her in Jumper (2008). She shows up at the end of the movie for like 5 minutes but that was enough for me.
Stewart received so much hate for her role as Bella Swan. Most of that hate was simply thinly veiled misogyny but there were critiques of her making too many “mouth noises” or being too “wooden”. I will say that as the resident Twilight lover (to my mother’s chagrin) that her performance as Bella was honest to the character. Bella is a very wooden character who makes a lot of mouth noises. Everything interesting about her does take place in her head. (The true critiques should have come from Stewart’s portrayal of Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), a truly horrific performance). I am not here to talk about the can of worms that is Twilight, that’s what I have YouTube for, but I am here to talk about Pablo Larrain’s Spencer (2021).
I must begin by saying, I saw the first glimpse photograph of Kristen as Diana and I yelled and proceeded to state that this would be the greatest movie of her career. She looked so much like the Princess of Wales in that one photograph it was hard to see the actress underneath. It was very much like looking at a ghost. The twitter reaction (which I definitely saw too much of) was very mixed. So many people couldn’t believe that Kristen was cast, many didn’t think that she could pull off the accent. But many people agreed that she looked amazing. I was always a believer. I remember seeing the poster, it’s a simple black background with Diana kneeling away from the audience in a stunning white dress, and audibly saying “This will be my Joker.” Said poster is my phone background and it is gorgeous.
I went to see the Spencer film on November 13th with my friend. We decided to go to the afternoon showing in the nice Cinemark theater after having walked around the Barnes and Noble. It was really a nice day to go see a movie. Our theater only played the audio of the advertisements for about 15 minutes before the actual moving images appeared on the big screen. Armed only with my strawberry icee, mini oreos and mini m&m’s, it was finally time for what I was sure to be an incredible movie experience. I walked out of the theater a changed person. The Exquisite from before no longer exists. There is only Before Spencer and After Spencer.
Okay enough being dramatic! Onto my actual review.
During the movie I was keeping a mental tally of things that were just mind-blowing to me. Right after the movie I opened my notes app and then made a very long rambling list which I am going to distill here. From the opening scene, I knew that this would be a very visually stunning movie. The cinematography by Claire Mathon was absolutely breathtaking. Every second of the movie could be paused and framed (I am tempted to do so). The film continues without dialogue for a good fifteen minutes as the audience is given a chance to acclimate to the environment being put on display on the screen. Then we are introduced to Diana, who is lost. From that moment on the anxiety and drama only continues to rise. All of Diana’s interactions with the staff, her husband and her in laws are oozing with high stress. The only reprieve Diana, and the audience, gets is when she is with her sons. They are the light of her life, and it is very obvious that they are what keep her together.
The movie depends on the lead performance and Kristen Stewart absolutely demolished the role, in a good way! From her accent to her head tilts, she ate that. At some points Stewart gets so completely locked in I struggled to separate Kristen as an actress from Diana the character in the film. The barely contained panic, anger, and fear was all so visceral. Play close attention to whenever Diana washes her hands. What should be a mundane and rather boring activity that could be left on the cutting room floor of a lesser film is a showcase in characterization in Spencer. There was only one moment where I was taken out of the film, and it was minute. Diana yells after being started and I saw Kristen the actress but that is if I must nitpick her performance. I have seen some critiques that are frustrated with some of the stiltedness of Stewarts Diana, however I think this simply added to the anxious atmosphere of the film. This was also a very physical performance, despite it not outwardly appearing to be one. Stewart had to bring the real Diana’s small movements to life while also keeping herself on edge.
My favorite scene was this one moment where Diana sits with her boys around a candle lit fire. It is early Christmas morning, and they play a silly game. There is such truth and earnestness behind Diana’s interactions with Harry and William that I was almost moved to tears. This is also where we get one of the films themes. “There is no future. The past and the present are the same thing.” Diana utters in a breathy whisper. Chills raced up my body and I was stunned silent, which is a feat because I love to talk.
I would be remiss to not talk about Pablo Larraín’s direction. This film is so claustrophobic. At many times I did not realize I was holding my breath until my vision started swimming. The use of the 45mm film gave the entire film this look that felt like it was straight out of the 90’s. Many times, Diana is places on the complete edge of the frame because she is literally on edge. There were also so many shots where the audience is placed at a distance. In many ways I felt like a voyeur watching the more intimate scenes and I feel like this was done purposefully considering how high-profile Princess Diana was. Her entire life was held under a microscope and this film does not shy away from that fact either. On all of Diana’s clothes there is a tag that reads P.O.W. This is a double entendre that refers to her titles as the Princess of Wales but also a “prisoner of war”. It does not help that all her clothes are chosen for her and at one point her blinds are sewn shut.
While Diana is the lead, and there is rarely any scene without her in it, her supporting cast is also excellent. The child actors they got to play William and Harry bring such joy to a highly anxious movie. Jack Farthing, who plays Prince Charles, is so smarmy I wanted to fight him through the screen. Props to Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins as well. There performances add so much extra depth to the entire production.
Some Random Thoughts
There is an Anne Boleyn subplot in Spencer that I enjoyed a lot. Anne Boleyn was the second wife on King Henry VIII. She was framed for adultery and subsequently beheaded when Henry grew disinterested with her. She is also distantly related to Diana and the Spencer family. Draw your own connections from there. I thought the subplot was artfully done. And created so many layers to the film.
Diana’s depression and bulimia are not shied away from in this film. In fact, it is a driving factor of a lot of Diana’s actions. I really enjoy how she is not villainized for her sickness either. It is all very empathetic.
There is also a throwaway line (though I don’t think there were truly any lines that should be thrown away) about musicals that makes me think Larrain’s Diana would be a Hamilton fan. I don’t know how I feel about that. All I know is she would have probably related to Eliza. The Burn of it all. But that is neither here nor there.
There is a whole thing with Diana’s old house and a scarecrow that I didn’t understand at the beginning, but it did come full circle at the end of the film. I wonder what the effect of taking out the scarecrow would be, but I don’t find it completely unnecessary.
THE SCORE. The Score, The Score, The Score. If you wanna talk about anxiety inducing, claustrophobic beauty you cannot ignore the score of Spencer. Johnny Greenwood, the same Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead, put together the stunning masterpiece of a score. The music centers you in the story and even more exciting than the music itself was the intense moments when the music cuts out completely.
The costume design for this film was also excellent. I need every outfit immediately. Diana would have loved Nothing New by Taylor Swift featuring Phoebe Bridgers.
At some point near the end of the film I pretty much became hysterical. I was barely containing my tears. My friend kept hearing me sniffling and saying “OMG I’m gonna cry.”
The tagline for this film is “A Fable from a True Tragedy” and that is absolutely the truth. The mix of horror and anxiety as well as over dramatization really emphasizes the tragedy aspect. But like all good fables there is a takeaway, one main overarching message of the film “What you need is love”. The true tragedy of Diana is that we know how her story ends. We know she does not get to live much longer, to see her sons grow older but we know she had love. That’s why the Diana story continues to be retold over and over and mythologized. She was truly beloved and that is what matters.
I am not the same Exquisite who walked in that theater aside from the overwhelming desire to wear tweed). I finally truly understand why we need movies. I mean I’ve always have understood but I just felt so moved and so fulfilled and empty at the same time when I walked out of the Cinemark. I love movies but for the very first time I had just seen a film. Please go see Spencer.
Check out this playlist I made about the anxiety of never being loved after you’re old and washed up that I think Diana would’ve loved! You can find me on Twitter having a multitude of meltdowns about Spencer @exquisitewill