Spencer, a Foreboding Mood Fire

Spencer may be more emotionally opaque than 2016’s Jackie, the last time filmmaker Pablo Larrain explored a grief-stricken icon’s slice of life. However, Larrain makes up for it through eccentricity, electricity, and empathy for not only Princess Diana, but those in her orbit as well. Kristen Stewart gives the best performance of her career (even if the accent is iffy, a little breathy), and she’s ably supported by the likes of Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris, and Timothy Spall as various individuals looking out for Diana over one tense Christmas weekend in a cavernous countryside manor. Larrain’s eye for bountiful textures, beautiful clothes, and brazen images fill in the contours of a film attempting to speak about celebrity, mental illness, and the oppressive gaze of a media-obsessed monarchy, and mostly succeeding. Diana’s eating disorder pulls focus as she finds herself unable to eat under such a gaze, the Queen’s family going so far as to weigh every individual attending Christmas dinner, a pithy attempt to guarantee everyone enjoys themselves gorging on goose and hen. Through Diana’s point of view, such events portend a royal family targeting her specifically. But paranoia and reality are awash in each other, the audience never fully certain what is real and what is imagined, what are true threats and mere artifacts of Diana’s jaundiced attitude.

There are moments shocking and scintillating, charming and revolting, sweet and savory. Mostly, the film is foreboding, a not-so-calm before the inevitable storm of her tragic life. Stewart is guaranteed a Best Actress nomination if not a win as most pundits are currently predicting. Spencer is a picture that neither lets Diana herself off the hook nor the family that pushed her to such terrible psychological ends. Most intriguingly, it’s a film that neither fully endorses the conspiracy theory surrounding her death nor ignores such a possibility. It’s up to the audience to decide what Spall’s former military butler means when he says, quite ominously, “leave her be.” It’s up to us to glean what a gifted book meant, whether her servants and scullions were sympathetic to her plight or pitiless behind her back. The heart of the picture is three-fold. Beyond Stewart herself, there is Sean Harris’ hard-working, sweet-natured chef, a friend who only wants Diana “to survive,” and in a final stanza that is heart-wrenching, Larrain follows Diana and her two sons on a joy ride to the city to the tune of “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics. Spencer is a mood piece brimming with melancholy, paranoia, and indelible performances.

Grade: B+

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