Hauntingly beautiful from start to finish, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is a dark fairytale about a tragic princess who very few people knew. Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing, and will no doubt go down as a highlight of her already accomplished career.
So much lore has surrounded the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales over the last two-and-a-half decades, it’s almost hard to keep up. The princess has been played by scores of actresses over the years, with varying degrees of success and fanfare, and her tragic story is one many of us have cemented in our brains. Spencer is not that story.
I commend Pablo Larraín wholeheartedly for not regurgitating the same maudlin tale we’ve been fed time and time again. Instead, Spencer is a unique, grim, and spell-binding fairytale; a musing of what might have been. Through the use of broad, extensive shots and a consistently gloomy aesthetic, Larraín creates an atmosphere that is both fantastical and foreboding. The story is not true-to-life, and it doesn’t claim to be. The film begins with a precursor that lets viewers know what they are about to watch is a fantasy based on a “real-life tragedy,” and what follows is Kristen Stewart portraying a version of the beloved princess that is nothing like we’ve ever seen before.
In Spencer, Stewart cements herself as the star audiences knew from the time she was a child, with the commanding on-screen presence we saw in the likes of performances such as 2002’s Panic Room. As Diana, any uncertainties of Stewart’s talent or ability are firmly squashed. Her bleary-eyed, wistful portrayal of The People’s Princess is her strongest performance to date, and watching her version of Diana slowly lose her grip on reality in this emotionally-charged drama is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Just as Stewart is the star of Spencer, the film’s soundtrack serves solidly as her co-star. Composed by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, the stunning score helps carry each scene; making the film flow effortlessly from melancholy to melodramatic, to at times downright nightmarish. It’s simply stunning, and in a theater, it creates an experience that borders on bewitching.
The supporting cast does exactly what it needs to: exists as an audience for Diana’s inner turmoil as it comes bubbling to the surface, and reacts to it in ways that make her increasingly suspicious and desperate to break free from her royal constraints. Sally Hawkins is a standout in her supporting role as close friend and assistant, Maggie. Timothy Spall is extraordinary as a Major who has been tasked with keeping a close eye on the Princess – and whose true motives keep you guessing until the very end.
Spencer is very much not a biopic, and that is exactly what makes the film so memorable. With Stewart’s endearing lead role and Larraín’s ability to create an environment that feels both beautiful and foreboding, Spencer is without a doubt one of the best films of 2021.