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#TIFF21 Review: Spencer (Special Events)

September 15, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín reinvigorated the biopic formula in 2016 with Jackie, offering a complex portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following her husband’s assassination, featuring a bravura performance by Natalie Portman. Now Larraín pulls off a similar magic trick in Spencer, which similarly hones in on a very specific stretch of time in the life of an iconic figure, and casts Kristen Stewart in a career-defining performance as Princess Diana.

The film, which is as much a psychological portrait of the Princess of Wales as it is a royal drama, unfolds over three days at Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, where the Royal Family is gathering for Christmas. The year is 1991, and Diana (Stewart) has secretly decided that she wants to divorce Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), whose infidelity has become the point of tabloid fodder. Diana is on the outs with the family, but is keeping up appearances for the holidays.

As such, the family is watching her closely to ensure she doesn’t cause public embarrassment, even hiring a former military officer (Timothy Spall) to monitor her every move, heightening her growing sense of paranoia. But Diana finds ways to rebel. We first meet her driving herself to the estate in a convertible and arriving fashionably late. She challenges the status quo of what clothes she is supposed to wear, what food is supposed to be eaten, and questions annual traditions such as the pheasant hunt.

Stewart is transformative and moving in the role. Not only is it an uncanny impersonation, with her blonde hair, mannerisms, and English accent being spot-on, but it’s an excellent performance as well, with Stewart bringing depth and emotion to her portrayal of the iconic figure. This is very much a character study of a woman being driven mad by the public spotlight. Stewart’s Diana is suffering from bulimia, seen at several points with her head in the toilet bowl, and engages in other forms of self-harm as well. But her portrait of a disillusioned princess is also surprisingly funny at times, using sardonic humour as a way to cope with the demands of her life.

The screenplay by Steven Knight provides a number of humanizing, character moments for Diana, including some wonderful scenes with her two young sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). Knight’s script also provides a couple of rich supporting characters for her to converse with, including an assistant (Sally Hawkins) and a chef (Sean Harris). Harris brings a good deal of empathy to his role, with a touching moment in the kitchen, and Hawkins has one scene in particular at the end that is quite beautifully written and performed.

The film unfolds as a tense chamber drama laced with elements of a psychological thriller. The estate itself looms in the frame like the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, with its long hallways that Diana briskly walks down setting the stage for a different sort of madness setting in. The excellent jazz score by Jonny Greenwood gives the film the feel of a thriller, with a haunting motif that keeps being revisited on different instruments.

The film is gorgeously shot by Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Claire Mathon. Many of her images have a stately, regal quality to them, matched by a sense of foreboding. There is a haunted quality to the way she shoots the estate and its grounds at times, suggesting the presence of figurative and literal ghosts, including the hallucinatory vision of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) that Diana starts seeing roaming the halls. Mathon’s cinematography is complimented by the film’s immaculate costumes and production design.

The opening subtitle calls it “a fable from a true tragedy,” and Spencer is a tragic portrait of a woman unraveling as she is put under the microscope of public scrutiny. But, through the film’s incredibly poignant final scenes, Larraín also gives her a much deserved happy ending. The tears that flow are a cathartic release from the intensity of everything it follows, and also a sombre reflection on what we know is to come. Larraín has crafted a perfect companion piece to Jackie, delivering another powerful and intimate portrait of a public figure over a few defining days.

Public Screenings:

Wednesday, September 15th – 6:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

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