2021 BFI London Film Festival Review
Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) is spending three days at Sandringham Palace with her husband and family, as tradition dictates. This is a snapshot of life within that royal circle, as lived by the Princess who would become a national icon.
For anyone who has their doubts going into Spencer, rest assured Kristen Stewart has it in the bag. From the roadside café introduction to her eerie grasp of intonation, Kristen Stewart completely disappears. In fact, so absorbing is her performance that audiences will forgive Spencer a great many other things as this film unfolds.
Set over three days at Christmas in Sandringham, Spencer focuses its attention on those that serve, not those borne to be served upon. By taking this approach director Pablo Larrain, known for Lisey’s Story and Jackie respectively, keeps all the attention on Diana. This in turn allows Kristen Stewart to build a performance of nuance and dramatic intent that will astound many people.
Very few actors have managed to do what has been done here with Diana Spencer. Those who doubted her ability to convincingly portray a cultural icon will be silenced in ten minutes. Kristen Stewart dominates with such ease that those actors who are there to support really need to work hard. Thankfully, when that company includes Timothy Spall and Sean Harris, it only serves to enrich an already enthralling experience.
As Major Alistar Gregory, Timothy Spall is part bloodhound and part gatekeeper to royal tradition. His loyalty to Queen and country comes through in every fibre of a perfectly measured performance. Whether he is giving biased advice to an isolated Diana, or taking away those she feels capable of confiding in, his allegiances offer up the conflict which drives this story forward.
On the flip side, Sean Harris gives executive chef Darren a benevolence and warmth that flies in the face of his more villainous roles. His scenes with Diana are laced with paternal concern, tempered by the restraints of decorum and yet grounded enough to balance everything out. As with many elements of Spencer, these on-screen dynamics are essential in bringing a reality to events, as things turn more abstract.
As the weight of expectation and isolation takes its toll, director Pablo Larrain veers off into uncharted territory abandoning narrative convention for sledgehammer symbolism. Ghostly apparitions, stress driven purges and painful dinner scenes chart Diana’s descent into mania. That these elements never feel exaggerated, but rather part of a whole, are down once again to that performance. Turning from manic to maternal on a dime convincingly, whilst remaining buried in the role never ceases to be anything other than awe-inspiring.
Alongside that in a pivotal performance of understated tenderness is Sally Hawkins as Diana’s personal dresser Maggie. A contribution which not only comes with its own heartbreaking elements, but also gives the leading lady someone else of substance to bond with. A role that allows for gentle comedy as a counterpoint to those more tragic elements, which loom large as audiences are asked to fall for Diana all over again.
However, for those set on finding fault, Spencer is nowhere near flawless. Steven Knight’s script can be a little on the nose at times, while an Eighties needle drop late on threatens to undo all the good work done elsewhere. Those niggles aside, Spencer is a tonal success which takes an icon and only adds to her mystique. There are no side swipes at the monarchy, but rather wry observations on the inherent problems that come with being in that position.
More character study than sensationalist cinema, Spencer should bag Kristen Stewart an Oscar, Golden Globe and everything else in between. Until now, only Meryl Streep has managed the same thing in cinema, retaining both the dignity and legacy of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Spencer achieves the same thing with a performance which is a masterclass in method, from an actor no one saw comin.