It would be an understatement to reduce Spencer to a mere biographic film about Diana. In fact, it is one of the best arthouse films of the year, purely poetic, cinematic art.
Immediately, the first frame of the film points at the wonderful cinematography by Claire Mathon, who also photographed Portrait of a lady on fire. Her work here is however very different, employing film rather than digital formats, with even more excellent results than Portrait, which was already lauded extensively for its cinematography per se. The nocturnes, the misty scenery make way for a film that is visually very distinct.
The screenplay, penned by Steven Knight (best known for the hit tv show Peaky Blinders) excellently builds on absence, avoiding direct addresses of biographic elements yet continuousy hinting at them. By nearly respecting the aristotelic principles of unity (unity of action, space and time – a royal Christmas festivity, although it is an event that lasts through three days), it shuts out all of the major events in Diana’s life and reimagines a moment of passage that would define her following actions, but again, without hinting at the future events. Absence is manifested also in the literal solitude of Diana throughout most of the film: the rest of the members of the royal family appear very briefly, she interacts with only few characters (most accurate to their real equivalents) in sporadic scenes. It is a film that is mostly concerned with her inner life in that sense and in no way a didactic film that aims to describe the life of Diana, which is what biopics usually aim at. Hence, the clear hint that identifying Spencer as just another of Pablo Larrain’s biopics is a mistake.
Looking at Larrain’s works, Spencer at firs appeared to be closest to his revious portrait of a celebrity linked to power, Jackie. Ultimately, the comparison does not work at all: Jackie is a very different film, built on non-linearity and much more a biopic in various senses than Spencer is. Spencer aims higher as a film as to represent a famous woman.
A few words have to be spent on Kristen Stewart’s almost flawless portrayal. Throughout most of the film she is unrecognisable, her performance completely identified in the character, also thanks to the makeup that makes her almost identical to the real Diana. Her work on gestures and mannerism is palpable even to who is less familiar with the character. Occasionally however, Kristen Stewart reappears from under the mask, something that might have been unavoidable, but that does not stain the overall performance. It is most definitely a performance that will skyrocket her career and that should lead to a nomination at least, but the supporting cast is also worth mentioning, especially Sean Harris (best known for his villainous roles, but this is not such a case), Timothy Spall, as well as Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry as the young William and Harry.
Spencer is a film that is deeply cinematic in all ways, that grows beyond the genre it was designed to. More than the biopic that Jackie was, it is more resembling Andrei Rublev in its artististic aims, or At Eternity’s Gate. It may be one of the very best film releases of this year, if not the single best one so far.