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Kristen Stewart in Spencer.
Kristen Stewart in Spencer.
Photo supplied: Empire Entertainment




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5/5 Stars


The marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles has long since grown cold. Though rumours of affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Christmas festivities at the Queen's Sandringham Estate. There's eating and drinking, shooting and hunting. Diana knows the game. But this year, things will be a whole lot different. Spencer is an imagining of what might have happened during those few fateful days. 


"A fable from a true story." That's how Pablo Larraín's Spencer describes itself, chronicling the mental state of Princess Diana during a torturous royal family Christmas as her marriage falls apart. From the start, your expectations about truth and fiction are expertly managed, and instead, you can fully immerse yourself into the poetic, almost fantastical portrait of a woman stifled by expectations and tradition. It's a strange yet enthralling piece of artistry, as beautiful and untamed as its tragic subject.

There might be a chronological order of events, but Spencer doesn't really have a story - instead, it's a tangle of emotional threads that tugs Diana into various, frantic directions. Her love for her children, her loathing of tradition, her precarious relationship with her body, her casual intimacy with those who work for her and the dreadful coldness of her husband and the royal family. There are big-time jumps, she hallucinates eating pearls and sees the ghost of Anne Boylen - it's a fever dream oddly rooted in reality, and the claustrophobia seeps its way into the audience.

It's not all fantasy - the filmmakers incorporate many real Diana details into the film pulled from a plethora of interviews and biographies written about her. The film is graphic about her real struggle with bulimia and the belittling of the royal family, highlighting how she used to interact with staff and her documented incessant need for escape from royal holidays. Throughout, she's dressed up in multiple signature Diana styles, and the constant wardrobe changes reflect her mood as the days progress. At one point, she wears her dresses out of sync as set out by the royal family and seems to upset the family more than anything else she does. The film cannot go one minute without some heavy thematic metaphor, but thankfully an incredibly talented actor bears the weight with grace without it becoming cumbersome.

Kristen Stewart was not a popular choice for playing the People's Princess - but it's hard to imagine Spencer without her. Diana has been played by 11 different actors since 1982, all at very different parts of her life. Stewart, however, brings something different to her interpretation, something almost ethereal and eccentric that speaks to a more wild version of Diana. We see her interact more with the staff and her children than the rest of the royal family, with only one heated one-on-one scene with Prince Charles. The range of emotions that Kristen has to invoke on this slightly demented journey had to be incredibly taxing, but she pushed through and gave the performance of a lifetime. Her deftness is also enhanced by her exceptional supporting cast, from Sally Hawkins as her confidant dresser to the kindness of a chef played by Sean Harris and the cold sternness of Timothy Spall. I especially enjoyed the chemistry between Stewart and her on-screen children, the only anchors that tether Diana to some semblance of sanity and is the final driver for her eventual escape from the hellish holiday.

Spencer is further fuelled by storytelling captured through sublime cinematography and a remarkable costume department that made Stewart look as good as she deserved. The film radiated with a synergy between the crafters and the director, working seamlessly together to show the inner workings of Diana rather than using outright exposition. In Diana's moments of freedom, she's in wide-open spaces, and her style is relaxed. In her moments of despair, she's enclosed and stifled in cold castle hallways and an imposing bedroom, her pearls that Charles also bought for Camilla getting tighter and tighter around her neck as she's suffocating. There is just too much to unpack in one review, and just one viewing will leave you with many missed moments of genius.

It's not the kind of film that's for everyone - even if you're a die-hard Princess Diana fan. Spencer is a love letter to her, but one written by a philosopher rather than tabloids. It plays a fine line between reality and make-believe, and the audience almost becomes part of Stewart's experience rather than being mere voyeurs. Spencer is an exceptional piece of filmmaking from all fronts and won't be loved by all - but it will leave a lasting impression regardless.


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