It’s a chilly Christmas Eve in the Norfolk countryside where Spencer sets itself. Yet over the next three days at the sprawling manor of Sandringham, the mood will be far from holiday celebrations. And that’s felt from the opening seconds; as a convoy of heavy-duty military vehicles roll along through grim country, every tire just barely avoiding a pheasant lying dead in the road. Armed soldiers march across the courtyard, bearing cargo in tightly sealed containers. Yet this isn’t the artillery; it’s just fresh meat and vegetables for the feast, to be overseen by a battle-weary chef (Sean Harris) who urges his staff to work quietly: “They can hear you.” “They,” of course, are the royal family, all of whom will arrive shortly, yet their most famous and famously troublesome member is missing. In one of her latest breaches of protocol, Diana, Princess of Wales (a mesmerizing Kristen Stewart), has ditched her security detail and driven down from London by herself, getting lost and distracted along the way. Arriving hours late for an event run with military precision, Diana comes tearing up the drive like a stray missile, an image reinforced by the bird’s-eye view of her convertible approaching the compound. Don’t call Spencer a biopic; in these moments, it feels like some cross between a war and horror film.
The tensions are high no matter what. It’s December 1991 and the death throes of Diana’s marriage have begun, though neither director Pablo Larraín nor screenwriter Steven Knight have much use for strict facts or timelines. They trust that their audience knows the whole tortured saga well, perhaps from watching the countless shows and movies made about Diana’s life or closely following the headlines that hounded her to the grave and beyond. Even with over two decades since her passing, her place in the hearts of a monarchy-obsessed public feels more secure than ever; thanks to the likes of The Crown and much more. Yet Spencer isn’t exploitatively retreading ground. Instead, it’s freed Larraín and Knight from any obligation to be comprehensive or definitive, much less adhere to the deadening conventions of the prestige Hollywood biopic. Why try and contain someone of Diana’s iconic stature and expressive power to one genre? The royal family’s drama have long been likened to those of a soap opera, but Spencer, even as it achieves the emotional extravagance of a first-rate melodrama, refuses to be hemmed in. It’s opening title card reads: “A fable from a true tragedy.” And it lives up to that and more: It’s a historical fantasia, a claustrophobic thriller and a survivalist drama, morphing what might seem like tabloid trash into high art.
But, most importantly, it’s a portrait of a woman under attack; a woman pressing against the limits to her own agency. Increasingly depressed and isolated, Diana refuses to see her in-laws or wear the dresses (brilliantly designed by Jacqueline Durran) that have been set aside for each occasion. (Every garment bag bears the label “P.O.W.,” which can of course be read two ways.) From her perspective, it’s hardly a fair fight: She’s trapped in enemy territory and gravely outnumbered, mixed within strict ritual and order. But, for her, she carries an unshakable emotional advantage, where the audience is concerned. This is, after all, Diana, the people’s princess, whose glamorous beauty and warm, irrepressible humanity have long dominated public sympathies and reproached the cold institution she married into. No less important, this is Kristen Stewart, reluctant Hollywood royalty incarnate, hurling herself into the kind of dazzling celebrity-as-celebrity star turn that reduces co-stars to commoners and brings possible awards glory. And that’s usually not a compliment. But Stewart has long confounded our notions of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and her brilliantly prismatic performance is both a natural extension of her image and a nervy departure from it. Her best earlier roles were subversive riffs on her own mega-celebrity: Playing lowly assistants to the stars in two Olivier Assayas’ dramas, Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, Stewart electrified the camera’s gaze even as she seemed to deflect it. Her flinty naturalism took on a different radiance.
In Spencer, she achieves something new but equally remarkable through radically different means. Those means might look conventional on the surface: a blond wig, a British accent and an array of actorly mannerisms — hushed, breathy intonations, nervously darting eye movements — that are a little jarring early on. But by the time Diana arrives at Sandringham, where she retreats to her chambers and shows little intention of emerging, the illusion has eerily seized hold. What gives Stewart’s performance its specific resonance goes far beyond just skillful techniques; it’s the sense of a spiritual kinship, unarticulated but unmistakable, forged by an actor who knows a thing or two about the trappings of fame and the gossip mill. Stewart doesn’t go easy on the character, either; she allows Diana her moments of spite and self-pity, and those who’ve always dismissed the princess as a willful victim or a scheming manipulator will not find their opinions entirely refuted. But even with that, Stewart’s underlying compassion never wavers. Always good at projecting awkwardness and insecurity, she particularly comprehends Diana’s innate shyness, her squirming unease in these hostile surroundings.
Her discomfort is inflamed at every turn by Larraín’s filmmaking, which often employs the feverish language of psychological horror to conjure a mood of relentless extremity. No one moves the camera like Larraín; it’s so often on the prowl, its fluidity adorned with an unmatched lyricism. As wielded by the great cinematographer Claire Mathon, the camera here chases Diana down corridors and stalks her around her chambers where she seethes and despairs. The score, as well, shudders with all the raw-nerves jitteriness and poignant beauty you’d expect from composer Jonny Greenwood, as he mixes jazz with dissonant horror. Even Diana’s wardrobe becomes a gorgeous prison, from the string of pearls that repeatedly tightens around her neck to the stunning Chanel gown she wears as she vomits into a toilet. And amongst the shadows of Sandringham (handsomely arranged by production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas), cinematic allusions appear everywhere. Larraín fans will naturally start to think of his earlier fairy tale, Jackie, which starred Natalie Portman as the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy; and that’s likely because both films center on women trapped in gilded cages of politics, privilege, and intense media scrutiny. But during the affectionate moments that Diana shares with her adoring sons, Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry), things briefly take on spooky candlelit overtones of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Sandringham itself begins to echo the labyrinth contours of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, its hallways are no less filled with ghosts of the past.
The most visible specter is Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), whose own famous case of unhappily ever after holds up a grim mirror to Diana’s plight. It’s the script’s most ponderous motif that thankfully doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. But it fits Knight’s tendencies for portentous lines, and the movie as whole continues his fascination with dramas of confinement, as here he shrewdly boxes Diana in, temporally as well as spatially. The tighter its focus, the more intimate Spencer becomes. And in keeping with that intense subjectivity, other members of the royal family are barely seen; even Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and the queen (Stella Gonet) are granted just a few curt moments apiece. Diana, forever an outsider, has more meaningful interactions with her few allies on the palace staff, especially her favorite dresser, Maggie (a warm Sally Hawkins), who urges her to stay strong and power through. More combative if not entirely unsympathetic is Maj. Alistar Gregory (an excellent Timothy Spall), who keeps the proceedings on schedule and warns Diana about the prying eyes of the paparazzi huddled outside their windows. Ironically, the glaring spotlight of the media might actually be preferable to the royal family’s constant scrutiny.
And that scrutiny — so much attention, so little love — is what brings on Diana’s fateful actions in Spencer, a movie in which big actions are not prevalent but decisive shifts are always taking place. To move forward with her life, the movie’s title suggests, Diana must look backward. Sandringham happens to be located not far from the estate where she grew up — boarded up now, but still a potent repository of memories, rooted in happier, more innocent times. Some of them come rushing back in Spencer‘s most striking images: a lemon-yellow sailor suit, a little girl’s exuberant run, a dance through halls, a tattered jacket gracing a long-forgotten scarecrow; all of which come from as moving, poetic, and majestically sustained a passage of pure, unadulterated cinema as I’ve seen this year. Such a location also may be the movie’s most bittersweet allusion, an echo of another fairy tale that knows there’s no place like home. An experience of visceral, suffocating solitude and poetic luxuries, Spencer is a historical fantasia where inevitable collapse and looming death is met with a striving for a sliver of hope and newfound agency.
Spencer is playing in Theaters nationwide