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TIFF 2021 Review: Spencer – “Kristen Stewart is absolutely transcendent as Diana”

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

Several films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival explore the oppression of women.  It may come in the form of a country’s discriminatory culture like in Hill Where the Lionesses Roar, or it may be at the hands of a father abusing his control over his daughter as in Murina.  The Mad Women’s Ball looked at how misogyny dictated control over women with even the slightest emotion.  In director Pablo Larraín‘s latest film, Spencer, oppression comes at the hands of the most famous family in the world, its traditions and expectations as well as the media chronicling their lives.

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The beginning of Spencer, labels the film as “A fable from a true tragedy.”  It takes place as the Princess of Wales arrives at Sandringham to join the Royal Family for Christmas.  Diana (Kristen Stewart) shows up on her own after getting lost on her way from Kensington.  She’s late, much to the dismay of Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), a new employee to the estate and a former Black Watch officer put in place to keep any paparazzi at bay, and also keep a close eye on the Princess.  When she arrives she is told to sit on scales, her weight recorded.  It’s tradition you see that each member of the family put on at least three pounds to prove that they enjoyed their Christmas.  “Just a bit of fun.”

Diana takes every moment that she can to spend alone with her young sons Harry (Freddie Spry) and William (Jack Nielen), the one thing that seems to give her joy.  She is also elated to find that the attendant and dresser assigned to her for these three days is Maggie (a wonderful Sally Hawkins), the one person to whom Diana feels she can speak freely.  But the walls have ears in this house, and Diana herself seems on the brink of a breakdown.  With staff concerned for her, and the Family keeping control of her every move, Diana finds small moments to try and connect with herself, to try and break free as everything else feels like it’s closing in.

If you’re reading this review it is likely that you have heard already about Stewart’s performance in this film, and anything you have heard is correct.  She is absolutely transcendent as Diana, and it’s now her Oscar to lose.  It’s not just the accent though that she achieves, but the mannerisms so characteristic of her subject.  It would be easy to transform into a caricature, but Diana is so clearly respected that she is never treated as such.  Stewart always portrays Diana with so much tension in her jaw and her shoulders, like she’s about ready to burst out of herself, that her body language elevates the pressure she feels.

Steven Knight, a 2004 Oscar nominee for Dirty Pretty Things, pens the script here, full of poignant and elegant dialogue.  Coupled with Larraín’s intimate direction, Spencer thrives as the fable it claims to be, full of atmosphere and at times an even supernatural feel.  The score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (who also did the music for The Power of the Dog) utilizes jazz elements as well as discordant tones, at times disorienting and stress-inducing, adding to the stressful surroundings Diana finds herself in.  As is noted in the film, the media’s “lenses are more like microscopes,” and so is this film, an intimate portrait of a woman under extreme scrutiny, constantly being examined for every minuscule detail, each step and misstep.  On the shoulders of Kristen Stewart’s transformative performance, Spencer hints at how this emotionally fraught existence led an extraordinary woman on the path to freedom from the oppression that confined her.

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