REVIEW: ‘Spencer’ is a master class character study

Diana, Princess of Wales, has been portrayed on screen for decades, in everything from TV movies to the critically acclaimed series “The Crown.”

Perhaps no film has featured a portrayal as intimate and powerful as the one in “Spencer,” though.

Kristen Stewart stars as Princess Diana, who’s joining the rest of the British Royal Family in Norfolk at the Sandringham Estate for the holidays in 1991. The film follows Diana closely, from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day, showcasing her strained relationship with the rest of her family, her struggles with mental health and commitment to be a strong parent for her sons.

Where “Spencer” differs from other biopics about Princess Diana and other films about the royals is the hyper-focus. The movie centers nearly exclusively on Diana, and what she has to go through.

The central focus of Diana in this picture provides a deeply personal look at the Princess of Wales. While the film is set over just a three day span, it feels like nearly every aspect of who she was is on display.

Diana’s relationship with Prince Charles, her time spent with her sons, her anxiety when having to deal with the rest of the Royal family, and her eating disorder. All of these aspects are whirling around throughout the movie, resulting in a chaotic environment for Diana, and the film captures that tumultuous atmosphere amazingly well.

There are so many standout sequences in this film that portray Diana’s struggles in impeccable fashion. Whether Diana is inside the estate or out on the grounds, there’s always four walls seeming to surround her, and be closing in.

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Courtesy FilmNation Entertainment and Neon.

One scene especially brilliant involves Diana having soup and wearing a pearl necklace. It’s one of a few scenes in “Spencer” which are more metaphorical than real, allowing a viewer to really get into the mind of the character.

While the movie certainly doesn’t have a traditional narrative structure, the movie does give Diana an arc. The compelling, and at times distressing, journey Diana is on throughout the film revolves around her wanting to break away.

Scenes capturing this aspect range from Diana attempting to visit her nearby childhood home to wanting to confide in a royal dresser who she trusts. This ultimately builds to a cathartic finale, which not only serves as a powerful and beautiful way to end the film, but a moving and loving tribute to the real life figure.

Part of the reason all of these moments work is Kristen Stewart, who gives a tour de force performance. After solid performances in 2014’s “Still Alice” and 2020’s “Happiest Season,” Stewart goes to an entirely higher tier as Princess Diana.

It’s a reserved performance with a lot of subtlety. In many moments, Diana is quiet or holding back, such as a scene where her family is leaving a church and being bombarded by paparazzi. In scenes like these, Stewart shines, with her facial expressions and mannerisms saying so much.

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Stewart’s stellar performance isn’t limited to moments like these, though. The portrayal is wonderfully well rounded, with so many aspects of the character being shown. Stewart convincingly shows Diana’s love for her sons, her anger toward several circumstances and the inner turmoil she’s going through.

Stewart also deserves praise for a multi-layered performance, as the audience sees two Dianas in “Spencer.” There’s the Diana who has to put on a front for the royal family and staff, and the real Diana, who can be herself.

The latter comes out in another standout scene where Diana is speaking about the holiday weekend to the royal dresser she’s friends with, Maggie (Sally Hawkins). It’s a tender, heartfelt scene and Stewart commands the screen by giving the true Diana her due.

While the focus is on Stewart, though, the supporting cast does great work, too. Timothy Spall has a strong presence as the lead staff member at the estate, Hawkins is a calming presence as Maggie, Stella Gonet is imposing as the Queen and Jack Farthing is foreboding as Charles.

Director Pablo Larrain deserves a lot of credit for bringing all of this together so well. Credit also has to go to the crew who worked on the cinematography and design of the movie.

“Spencer” is an absolutely gorgeous film. The set design is exquisite, the costuming is on point, the camerawork is intimate and the lighting and colorization sets the mood nicely. The music is integral, too, with intense, haunting melodies.

This is a character study firing on all cylinders. Thanks to Larrain’s strong direction, Stewart’s incredible performance and everything in between, “Spencer” is a triumph. 5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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