What do we really know about Princess Diana? She was the People’s Princess and constantly in the public eye. But that striking gaze does not equate knowing someone for who they really are. We will never get that opportunity to really know Diana, but writer Steven Knight and director Pablo Larrain bring audiences quite the unique experience. This new biopic and character study is a haunting and arresting experience that will leave you exhausted and emotionally drained. What an impressive experience? But does this new film do justice to the memory and legacy of this beloved public figure?
What does the talented Larrain bring to the table in bringing Spencer to life? Larrain has shown before that he can create quite the haunting character study with films like Jackie. There is a striking beauty to this film that is engrossing and awe-inspiring. The colors pop in this muted visual scope. There are plenty of inspired camera shots ripped from the works of Kubrick. The camera zooms in high and tight to Kristen Stewart (Diana) quite a few times allowing for an intimate connection to the audience. Long shots down hallways are haunting as the audience is wrapped in this towering mansion along with Diana.
But what are the most surprising aspects of this drama? Larrain creates incredible tension around every turn. This drama slowly creeps into thriller territory with how much white knuckling occurs during the film. There are multiple scenes where Larrain is able to convey the extreme anxiety and shaken reality that Diana was experiencing in the scene. There was a point that was so jarring (pearls…that is all) that a woman in my theater audibly called out how disgusting it was. This is such an intimate story about her majesty and Larrain knows exactly how to turn up the heat on the audience. Jonny Greenwood’s score just adds even more dimensions to this arresting experience. The otherworldly sounds and creeping organs build a wall of oppression that is unnerving throughout. You will not experience another cinematic atmosphere quite like this one in any other film this year.
What is Knight able to add to this experience through his screenplay? First off, Knight can create one of the most complex and intriguing protagonists put to film this year. The Diana of the film is filled with layers upon layers of emotion and challenges. The narrative is not heavy on plot points but is structured so well in the way that this character arc is played out (leading all the way up to a cathartically moving experience). The supporting characters are written well as they represent all the different aspects of the world that Diana “rules” over and exists in. The themes are deeply rich as they are providing impressive fleshing out to this cinematic experience. The way the film looks deeply at the constant gaze and listening ears around Diana and their impact is striking and moving. The pressure that is slowly crushing her is also impressively rendered in some unnerving sequences. The representation of mental illness is engrossing and moving in ways that are quite unexpected. This might be one of the thematically rich films out there for the award season push.
Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Sean Harris lead the ways with impressive supporting work…but there is only one performance to really focus on, right? Stewart is an absolute revelation. Stewart (like her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson) has had quite the interesting personal turnaround as an actor. If any does not believe in her talents after this film, they are actively trying to deny themselves. This performance is a star making one and will sweep up plenty on the awards circuit. She loses herself in this role as she fully embodies this real-life person. The way she physically carries herself is unique and on point. Her vocalizations are purposeful and spot on as she FEELS like royalty while also feeling all types of insecure in her shining spotlight. The intimate camerawork gives Stewart the opportunity to show the subtleties of her performance from her avoidant eyes and trembling lips. She is asked to show plenty of physical duress and the audience cannot help but buy it. There is a particular and strange montage of dancing sequences that allows her to embody the free spirit that Diana was. I could keep going on…but the most important thing to know is that this is one of the best performances of the whole year.
What did you expect out of this film about Princess Diana? Thanks to Larrain…Spencer will certainly be nothing like it. Twists and turns…heightening tension around every turn…plenty to internalize and experience, Larrain has created one of the greatest cinematic experiences of the year. This haunting and arresting display of Diana is one to leave you on the floor and think about this film for days. I could never look away due to the top-notch tension and engrossing filmmaking. Stewart demands your attention be drawn to Diana. You are left with no choice but to give in to this crazy ride. All of this is why Spencer just might be the best film of 2021.