Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín is one of the most compelling artists currently working in the medium. His career is grounded in social and political commentary, from 2012’s No, about an ad exec navigating a campaign to defeat Pinochet, to 2015’s The Club, about a group of priests exiled from the church for their abuse of children, to this year’s Ema, about a woman who lacks every instinct possible to be a mother yet wants that experience more than anything. In 2016, Larraín transitioned to English-language scripts with the woefully underrated Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the famed presidential widow. Now, he tackles another famous woman’s story in Spencer, a pulsing, heartbreaking account of a weekend in the life of Princess Diana (played by a breathtaking Kristen Stewart) as her marriage crumbles around her and life in the royal family becomes nearly too suffocating to bear.
The film is billed as a fable, and in fact one of the very first things we see on screen is a similar disclaimer: a fable based on true, tragic events. Which, once you’ve seen the film, is starkly fitting. Describing it as a recounting of the weekend in 1991 when the family gathered at Sandringham, the Queen’s Scotland home, certainly doesn’t do the film justice. That would imply that it’s some sort of chronological account of the facts, an unbiased reenactment of what transpired the weekend Charles and Diana finally decided to end their doomed union. Instead, Spencer is so unabashedly a story of Diana’s trauma, frustration, fear and sadness (and Stewart is such a commanding presence) that the rest of the cast, including Jack Farthing as Charles and Stella Gonet as the Queen, barely even register on screen. We see Diana briefly with her children, but those who truly register on her radar are those who tend to her on a daily basis (whether she likes it or not), dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and one of the Queen’s security detail, Major Gregory (a sour-faced Timothy Spall).
Unlike other overly polished portraits of the Princess of Wales, Spencer aims to humanize Diana in ways that aren’t always entirely flattering. Stewart’s Diana is so fragile she’s nearly broken, so paranoid she’s nearly immobilized, so sad and dejected she nearly disappears. Building on Steven Knight’s claustrophobic, ghostly script (literally, there are ghosts of royals past…), Larraín creates in a visual medium something that’s actually quite cerebral and internal, Diana’s own intrusive thoughts, fears and struggles manifested on screen. The whole affair is made all the more difficult to watch knowing what we do about this young woman’s fate, about how the family, the media, the world would ultimately desert her and leave her careening towards a tragic end. From moment to moment, Stewart makes Diana’s pain palpable; a particular scene speaking with Charles in a game room is haunting, her wordless response to his unkind words saying volumes.
By the time the holiday weekend comes to a close (and the film is nearing its end), one might start to wonder where it’s all leading, how this tragic figure is going to resolve herself to a life she can’t escape. To say that the film’s final scenes are cathartic is an understatement; whether they are rooted in fact or not is beside the point. Even if only a dream, these fleeting moments are the sweet relief, the happily ever after we want so badly for the Princess, a woman who so deserved them. Larraín’s beautifully devastating work leaves us aching for the Diana who never quite found her footing in the world she married into and grateful more than ever for any moments of happiness she did manage to glean from her isolated existence.
Spencer is now in theaters.
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