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Spencer (2021) – Review: A Visually Rich Film That Features a Standout Performance From Kristen Stewart

November 3, 2021

Quick Thoughts – Grade – A – Spencer is a marvel of mood, lighting and tone. The specter-like camera, eclectic score, and 1:66:1 aspect ratio create a tense visual atmosphere that is hard to shake. Throw in Kristen Stewart’s excellent performance, and Pablo Larrain’s (watch Jackie!) confident direction, and you have one of the best films of 2021 that is bound to polarize audiences and critics.

Taking place during Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas festivities in December 1991, Spencer imagines what happened during those infamous days, which ended with Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart), deciding to divorce her husband Charles (Jack Farthing), and move on with her life. After directing Natalie Portman to another Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Jackie in 2016, director Pablo Larraín is back in a similar realm, and the results are wildly memorable. Larraín cast Stewart because of her “mysteriousness,” and that makes total sense, as Diana has remained a mysterious figure to the public, and Larraín’s visions require interpretation and mystery to make his characters work. The casting paid off as Stewart, who did loads of research, brings a level of mystery, fragility, and expressiveness to the interpretation. Look for Kristen Stewart to be a major player during the awards season, and after Clouds of Sil Maria, Personal Shopper, and Underwater, it’s neat seeing her continue her streak of appearing in interesting and different films. 

Spencer is loaded with fine performances from Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Nielen, and Freddie Spry, but what makes the film pop are the artists behind the scenes who worked together to create a marvel of mood and tone. The costume design by two-time Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran (1917, Mr. Turner, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is next-level, as the outfits blend well with the soft lighting, and dark corridors of the always cold castle. Watching Diana run through a muddy field in high heels, and a dress provides a memorable visual of contrasting elements that are made even more interesting by the long dolly shot that tracks her journey. The location scouting of the German and English locations allowed Larraín and cinematographer Claire Mathon (Atlantics, Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Watch it now) to find the perfect spots to stage their long dolly shots, and tracking steadicam work which places the audience inside the action, and features some of the best hallway steadicam work since The Shining. Also, the score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood blends strings, eclectic instrumentation, and jazz elements, to create an ominous, and almost oppressive vibe that makes normally mundane moments, like eating soup, seem nerve-racking. This is random, but it would be cool to see how the score for the 1999 cannibal movie Ravenous would fit into Spencer. It probably wouldn’t work, but it would be fun to see the two combined. 

While walking out of the screening several critics were vocal about their dislike of the movie, calling it “grotesque,” and “the worst film of 2021.” After some thought, it’s clear that Spencer is not for everyone, as it doesn’t explain much, and the interpretation of those three days may feel exploitative. However, Larraín has always been clear that his films are psychodramas that avoid conventional biopic tropes, and instead reimagine events and characters. The script from Steven Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises) provides a threadbare plot structure, and is much more content creating a fable that doesn’t rely on fact. This has proven to be troubling for some, but, if you can get on the film’s wavelength, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Final Thoughts: Kristen Stewart gives a career best performance, and it will be fun to see the public’s reaction to this unconventional film.

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