One of the best films of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is a perfect example of how imagined fables within the context of real-life events such as those witnessed by Princess Diana can create remarkable viewing experiences and draw us closer to feeling, rather than knowing, what it’s like to constantly live in the public eye.
It’s what makes Spencer truly stand out from other, much more conventional, biopics. Never attempting to document but rather narrate, the film wonderfully blurs the lines between the factual and the imagined, inviting us to go beyond questioning whether what we see on screen is actual, and persuading us that, while this is clearly a fable with bits of imagination weaved into uncomfortable truths, it is certainly possible; and that regardless of accuracy, it’s true to how the Princess of Wales must have felt at certain pivotal moments in her life.
Clearly mentioning from the outset that what we’re about to watch is not a standard rundown of Diana’s life, Spencer is a film brimming with confidence, elegance and meticulous attention to detail. Orchestrated to look like we’re finally experiencing Diana’s own viewpoint, the film shifts almost feels claustrophobic to great effect: in constraining most of what goes on screen within Diana’s troubled perspective, it grips our attention and never lets go. This narrative device particularly works especially well at a time when standard biopics have almost created a sort of storytelling template which Spencer gloriously shatters.
Comparisons will certainly be drawn to Larraín’s Jackie – but this is a finer, more assured examination of the person behind the personality, the agony behind all the lavishness of attire and makeup, the stirring emotions of being imprisoned, isolated and, to a large extent, ostracized. A beautiful picture on the price of being different, the daringness of being yourself in a system that simply would not take that for an answer, the realization that one’s true self is diminishing by day at the expense of putting up with appearances and the heartbreaking cry for help that no one seems to want, or be able to, listen to.
Taking place in just three days of Diana’s life, the film focuses on how these pivotal hours resulted in a journey of awakening for the suffocating Princess. It’s Christmas Eve 1992 and she’s been ‘summoned’ to spend the holidays with the royal family. And what may seem to be a formal, uneventful set of tradition-led dinners and photo opps ends up revealing Diana’s inner turmoil. Driven by her constant unease and unwavering sense of never fitting in especially as she finds herself forcefully immersed in a set of absurd and endless rules and brutal expectations, her eating disorder further intensifies as her sense of self further decays. By the end of the three days, Diana finally starts to take control of her life.
Mixing the factual and imagined, Larraín creates several brilliant showcases of Diana’s dilemma; most notably a surreal dinner where her pearls from her necklace, almost gripping her neck and lever getting go, fall into her soup bowl only to be devoured by her in an act of defiance. It’s certainly a figment of screenwriter Steven Knight’s imagination – but that’s exactly the point. Going beyond questioning what’s real or not, we immediately feel Diana’s aching soul in cold lavish hallways and punishing corridors where all eyes are on her – but no one seems to be really seeing her.
From Claire Mathon’s gorgeous cinematography perfectly evoking the sense of time and place, and the camera movements that capture Diana’s suffocation, to the spectacular costume design by Jacqueline Durran, and the immaculate production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas, everything works here in perfect harmony to achieve Larraín’s vision.
As Diana, Stewart is a revelation. A brilliant casting move by Larraín, Stewart’s acting style perfectly suits the director’s version of Diana. Trapped in an unforgiving environment that demands nothing but conformity and worship of tradition, something Stewart knows a bit about in her career, she captures Diana’s isolation and torment, channelling her fantastic abilities to communicate Diana’s awakening and realization that she can no longer support becoming a brand for media consumption, an icon for public appeal and a carefully calibrated royal that the Palace deems appropriate. Diana’s urgent need for liberation, rebellion and going back to who she really is, is delivered superbly by Stewart who goes beyond a pitch-perfect accent to embody Diana’s state of mind and capture her psyche rather than going for mere mannerisms and imitation.
Bottom line: A smart, moving and sophisticated reflection on what it feels like to never fit in, to constantly feel like an outsider and to have your life on public display, Spencer stays true to Diana without resorting to the factual, showing us that even when you can imagine rather than document, you can always hit the right notes if your approach is in strong sync with who your subject truly is.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. NEON will release Spencer on November 5.