Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” takes place over three days at the end of 1991, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. It begins with Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart, “Happiest Season”), 10 years into her tenure as the Princess of Wales, finding herself lost on the way to the festivities at the Queen’s estate in Sandringham, which neighbors the long-abandoned home where Diana was raised. Over the course of the holiday, Diana’s mental and physical health deteriorate under the unsympathetic eye of the British royal family, and she becomes increasingly paranoid and unhappy as she tries and fails to free herself from their suffocating watchfulness.
From the beginning, the film assumes its audience is familiar with the Princess and the British royal family’s mythos, and makes few concessions for those who may not be. Aside from three notable supporting characters who work on the staff at Sandringham, the film makes very few introductions. Most of the notable public figures that the film replicates are, like Diana, easy enough to identify through various signifiers, but the austere, dominating, monolithic presence of the royal family is clearly meant to be known going into the film. The vagueness of the people who are ostensibly the film’s antagonists manages to not be a detriment, however, as it obscures any of their true intentions, serves to validate Diana’s paranoia and illuminates her isolation within the royal family.
Nearly every creative decision made in “Spencer” converges on the idea that Diana is always being watched or followed. This is most effectively communicated through Larraín’s insistent camera, which acts like a volatile voyeur at all times. Sometimes it’s mere inches away from Diana’s face, crowding her; sometimes it’s lingering at a distance that could seem acceptable, if not for the fact that it moves whenever she does, creeping along and never letting her go unobserved. It’s a dogged, exhausting sort of persistence that makes Diana’s desperation to escape all the more palpable. The score is also essential to the film’s examination of the princess’s psyche — the music builds as Diana’s anxiety does, at times filling a scene with discordant strains of violin that crest and then crash into complete silence.
There are more and far less subtle ways the film decides to comment on Diana’s watched, caged-in nature, and some of them struggle in their heavy-handedness. An extended metaphor that draws parallels between Diana and Anne Boleyn goes just a bit too far to avoid feeling contrived; a one-sided conversation between Diana and a pheasant that wanders onto the property falls into the same trap. In fact, the film’s strongest moments are those in which no words are spoken at all. In particular, a speechless dinner scene involving a pearl necklace and green soup is as riveting as a scene in a movie can be thanks to the score, tight pacing and Kristen Stewart’s unflinching performance.
Stewart has already received award buzz for her performance as Princess Diana, and it’s well-earned. She is an incredibly particular performer, an actor who has been so visible for so long that her ticks and habits on-screen are well known. Though she doesn’t shed all of these in “Spencer,” she still manages to bring such depth and perceptible pain to Diana. She becomes so sympathetic because of the way Stewart can communicate the character’s struggle with just one look into the camera.
In an era where “The Crown” rules the Emmys, it could be easy to view “Spencer” as an unnecessary addition to an oversaturated corner of media. However, thanks to Stewart’s anchoring performance, Larraín’s solid direction and a tight structure, the film stands out as a unique take on a story that’s been told many times over, in many different ways. Despite a few clumsy moments in the script, “Spencer” is ultimately a tense, psychological, beautifully-shot glimpse into the inner life of a beloved and tragic figure.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.