When I first saw the photos of Kristen Stewart as the cultural icon that is the Princess of Wales on Twitter earlier this year I was both overjoyed at the thought of Stewart finally shaking her label as a “bad actress” due to Twilight’s stamp as “a mess” (Insider’s words not mine), in fact my crumpled Teen Now magazine cover of Taylor Lautner plastered on the back of my bedroom door would roll in its grave if I dared say anything close to “a mess.” However, never in a million years would I have pictured Bella Swan as Lady Di, which is exactly what makes Stewart’s performance so captivating.
What grasped my attention from the very start was the gorgeous cinematography captured by Claire Mathon, the cinematographer. This is no surprise considering she was also responsible for the 2019 visual and all-round masterpiece that is Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Much of the opening scenes of Sandringham House and the kitchen staff were also reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom) style of directing, such as the warm colour palette and perfectly symmetrical camera shots. These are exactly the shots that would lull the audience into expecting an inviting and comforting film that is “fun for all the family,” but oh how wrong they would be.
Spencer takes place over the three-day festive period; Christmas Eve to Boxing Day in 1991, at the Queen’s Norfolk estate of Sandringham House, which shows non-stop turmoil for Diana as it’s clear her mental health declines exponentially when forced to be around the royal family. From the get-go it’s clear that the divorce between Charles (Jack Farthing) and Diana is looming as Diana is shown rebelling by driving solo in a convertible sports car along country roads. It’s also clear throughout that the director (Pablo Larraín) portrays Diana as being on a warpath of defiance against the monarchy as she causes trouble for the staff and refuses to dress in the dresses set aside for her, which is a stark contrast to the perfect “people’s princess” portrayal the public is used to. This portrayal is exactly what makes Spencer stand out in a sea of Diana fan-boy documentaries and depictions as the production wasn’t afraid to show the ugly truth of Diana’s psyche and not sugar coat her struggles with bulimia and self-harm, which are shown throughout (in graphic detail).
What makes Spencer such an uncomfortable watch is the anxious jazz music by composer, Jonny Greenwood. The odd scattered notes that play combined with the distressing close-up camera angles while Diana is feeling overwhelmed makes the audience feel like they’re intruding and similar to Diana, feel like they can’t escape.
However, the lighter scenes in the movie, which are the ones I enjoyed the most were the ones between Diana and a young William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). It is clear that Larraín wanted to accurately portray the sweet relationship between Diana and her kids and like any good mother would do, she endures her gruelling in-law visits for the sake of her kids. Except in this production, William and Diana are portrayed as having a closer relationship which is something the public is not often exposed to, as Harry is seen as being more of a mummy’s boy rather than William, or in Diana’s words “they have the heir and I have the spare”. This fresh take on their relationship showed the burden that William carried at a young age with concerns for his mother’s mental health at this time.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this historical fantasia (that borders on psychological thriller) is Oscar worthy. Which isn’t out of the realm of possibilities as the Oscar buzz surrounding this film was rife before it even hit theatres and was nominated for best film at the Venice Film Festival this year. As well as the project aiming for Oscar nominations, it would be no surprise if Kristen Stewart was nominated for Best Actress as this production would have quickly fallen flat without a convincing lead because it’s so heavily character driven, but Stewart was able to flawlessly pull of the humanisation of Diana and has made this film one to watch for next year’s Oscars.
Written by Melissa Findlay