Pablo Larrain’s new biopic is an unconventional and bravely effective one
We seem to be coming upon a Princess Diana resurgence, with the last season of The Crown (2016-) helping inspire countless new documentaries on the likes of Netflix and CNN. Although probably in the works for many years before, the return of popularity surrounding the character certainly would have helped fund Pablo Larrain’s new biopic: Spencer (2021).
Spencer takes place during three days surrounding Christmas in the early 1990s. We follow our titular Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart) who is already suffering under the weight and pressure from both the media outside and the closing circle of the royal family. Throughout the three days we see Diana being cornered subtly and psychologically as her acts of silent rebellion prove futile.
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie (2016) looked at the most influential woman of the mid-20th century; with Spencer, Larrain is taking on the most influential woman of the late 20th century. Both films prove to be a fine companion pieces and intriguing biographies. The similarities with Jackie are various, most particular of which is style. Larrain and his cinematographer Claire Mathon choose a visual tone akin to the latter Terrence Mallick films, which seem to meld an extreme documentary feel, of an immersion that is uncomfortably personal. This is achieved thanks to the subtle use of the fish-eye lens, and the sweeping, tracking shots from hallways. The technical aspects of Spencer are particularly impressive, from an intimate sound design to the stand-out costume and make-up; they all coerce to place us next to the character and her anxieties.
However, such technical prowess would not be effective if not placed in a managed structure. Steven Knight has sole writing credit in Spencer, and he brings about a rather unconventional take on the biopic. Instead of focusing on the more dramatic scenes of conflict, or even the more talkative moments of the three days in focus, Knight chooses the “in-between moments.” It is this brave choice, which looks at what would normally be invisible transitions or off-screen happenings. This allows Larrain to craft the solitude and claustrophobia that Diana increasingly feels. With these silent moments you also feel more in touch with Diana’s character and her silent sufferings. When a biopic focuses on overly dramatic moments, it can prove alienating to viewers, but when instead focusing on more quotidian elements, an improbable proximity is achieved.
Spencer, however, would not have worked had it not been for the leading performance. I have to say at the beginning of the film I was a little disappointed with Stewart’s take on the character, seeing her lean too heavily on the imitative side. As the film went on, however, you discover the tricky balance that Stewart is undertaking. There is, of course, the performance within the performance that Princess Diana must put up, and it is these moments which can strike viewers as artificial. It is in the quieter scenes or when Diana is with her sons that you see something completely different sprout up. Stewart ends up disappearing into the role completely, with me being shocked awake when I saw her name in the credits again. Stewart herself must not have needed much imagination to draw on the media pressure that Diana felt, as she herself has been hounded to the point of running away. It was in Stewart’s escape in France that she began to rebuild herself as a different type of performer, and her last few films have been a joy to watch in how liberated her acting feels. Spencer seems to be a culmination of this new-found freedom in Stewart and begs viewers to experience it along with her.
In the end, Larrain delivers a truly spectacular and moving biopic. The risks in unconventional style and structure work to perfection, and the Chilean director fine-tunes and tightens aspects that had sagged in Jackie. Spencer is an incredibly effective film that places you uncomfortably close to the undue pressure that one brave woman had to undergo.