Spencer: A Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Source: Vanity Fair

Will Teare

Director: Pablo Larraín 

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, and Jack Farthing.

Release Date: Nov 5, 2021

Rating: 4.5/5

“Creative intentionality” is a quality most movies should have. The phrase means every single detail of a film, from the first words written onto the page to the final assembly. From the loud, blunt but clever dialogue to a subtle acting choice made in silence. From the choice of music to everything that the camera is framing (or mise-en-scène if you want to be that guy). All of those creative choices were intentional from the start, the whole movie being neatly tied up in a bow and delivered right to your local theater. And whether you recognize all that or not, you will most definitely feel it subconsciously. A good movie will do that to you, and that good movie is Pablo Larraín’s latest, Spencer. 

We follow Princess Diana Spencer, portrayed by an incandescent Kristen Stweart, in a flashpoint in her turbulent life. We see three days: Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day of 1991 as she struggles to survive against the warped and demeaning traditions of the Windsor Royal Family and even her mind. Spencer, very much in the same vein as Larraín’s Jackie (2016), is a mixed bag of many sub-genres and styles. It’s a biopic/psychological semi-horror/melodrama/arthouse film that tries to paint a portrait of a woman in crisis. It tackles many complex mental health issues that have been discussed over the years with Diana, including self-harm, bulimia, and suicidal thoughts. The film even opens with the text, “A fable from a true tragedy.” All that, mixed with a healthy dose of deranged and abusive Royals, makes it a tense, complicated, and at times grueling watch. But a film like that needs a heart and soul to attach yourself to, or else all the effort will be for nothing. That is where Kristen Stewart flourishes.

Stewart is stellar as the titular Princess of Wales. When we get a profile view of Stewart, she is borderline unrecognizable and completely disappears into the character. That may be a cliché way of talking about performance, but it’s the only way to give Stewart justice. She can balance these moments that are difficult to watch with very tender scenes with her children, Harry and William. Speaking of which, all the scenes with her children, specifically the ending and the midnight before Christmas parts, are perfect anchors into the depths and layers of tone the film presents. It’s difficult to not fall in love with Diana and how genuinely loving she is to her kids. Diana Spencer is as much a friend as she is a teacher and mother. Stewart delivers a career milestone performance. Although a win isn’t guaranteed, she’s a sure lock for Best Actress this upcoming awards season. 

Accompanying Stewart is a lovely supporting cast with no exceptional standouts, but that isn’t a detractor from the quality. To be frank, it isn’t their movie, and they’re not at all the focus. However, they are very much welcome and very much needed. They put the “supporting” in “supporting cast,” if you catch my meaning. 

The crew is where we have some real heavy hitters. Behind the camera is French cinematographer Claire Mathon. Mathon is fresh off of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of the best-looking films to come out of France in the 21st century. She does a great job of utilizing a warm, natural touch of film grain and some elegant camera movement needed to match the Windsor’s lavish Sandringham House. In the auditory space, we have a fantastic score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. He creates a rich and interestingly jazzy score with some unique touches of the occasional organ and harpsichord that adds a very traditional European regality to the film. A specific shoutout to the hair and makeup team and the costume design by Jaquelin Durran, an often overlooked part of filmmaking, is essential to recreating the fashion icon that is Diana Spencer. Kristen Stewart and every royal look exactly their part, and then some thanks to them. 

Pablo Larraín is an incredible artistic voice that makes this unique. He’s able to manage masters at their craft to create a singular vision that has unbelievable levels of creative intent behind it. The film leaves you with zero doubt that anything you saw wasn’t perfectly planned out and predetermined before filming even began. The list of arcs and motifs coming full circle is too great to list and would bring us deep into spoiler territory, but it’s effortlessly done. The two minor things that keep this from a perfect score are some pacing issues and the re-watchability factor. The movie is a little slow near the start. Not enough to make someone bored but enough that it could turn someone off. Additionally, the craft cannot make up for the fact that it’s not rewatchable. Some may want to venture back into the world of Spencer as it is very well made and does have some rewatchable scenes, but they are few and far between. However, at the end of the day, Spencer is an exceptionally well-made film. It is entirely possible that it could bring in a new era of Kristen Stewart and I, for one, am all for it. Rating: 4.5/5