Over the course of its now four years, Chapel Hill’s Film Fest 919 has gained quite the reputation for predicting Oscar winners. In its first three installments, festival alums “Green Book,” “Parasite” and “Nomadland” all took home Best Picture at the Academy Awards. While the big prize may not be as clear this year, after a week at Film Fest 919, it looks like the festival will be on the money when it comes to the acting categories.
Will Smith’s performance in “King Richard” is an early favorite for Best Actor, but it’s Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana in “Spencer” that is the performance of the year, making her a virtual lock to win Best Actress.
Beyond just Stewart, though, director Pablo Larraín’s dramatic biopic is a marvel, delivering some of the year’s most heartbreaking moments and most impressive technical achievements.
Inspired by a true tragedy, “Spencer” takes places entirely over three days surrounding Christmas 1991. While no one knows the true events of the holiday, the aura surrounding Diana and the Royal Family was no mystery. Diana and her husband Prince Charles were anything but happy together, and it was clear the Royals did not care much for the Princess of Wales, which makes it easy for Larraín to imagine what could have happened at the queen’s holiday home.
Diana (Stewart) is fed up. Rumors of infidelity surround her husband (Jack Farthing), she’s micromanaged at every turn, and depression and disorders are weighing on her. It’s easy to understand why she wants to break free from the outdated responsibilities of being a royal, and to see how just a sliver of freedom – like driving her own Porsche to the countryside estate – can serve as the smallest escape. But this is when Larraín chooses that Diana decided to take back control of her life, protesting the queen’s (Stella Gonet) mandatory wardrobe schedule, arriving late to meals and events, and prowling the grounds after dark to get a glimpse of her childhood home nearby.
Without even showing the added pressures of being “the people’s princess” in public, the unnecessary weight of the demands the family requires behind closed doors feel crushing, creating a sympathetic portrait of Diana that will have any and all viewers taking her side. Amidst the moments of rebellion, Diana shares truly tender moments with the young Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). She may be putting on a brave face standing up to the likes of the queen and the stern Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), but by candlelight on Christmas night, Diana is raw and honest with her children in a scene that’s equally touching and heartbreaking.
It may seem easy to become cynical about a performance garnering as much praise as Stewart’s is here, but no one is exaggerating – she is truly transcendent. Beyond the transformative hair and makeup, Stewart’s dialect, inflection and mannerisms are so spot-on that she completely disappears into the role. Only once or twice when the right angle or lighting catch her is it possible to snap out of this trance and realize that this is Kristen Stewart, not Diana herself.
To assist Stewart in her character’s unraveling, Larraín takes this fairly straightforward fable and adds a fantastical, surrealist element to accompany his lead. There are times throughout when it’s impossible to tell what’s real from what Diana wishes was real, but the most creative twist comes in the form of a 16th-century royal who knows how it feels to be trapped. After finding a book of Anne Boleyn in her bedroom, the former queen appears in key moments throughout the film, as Diana learns more about the woman who also once rebelled against her royal family. The addition provides a unique spin to prevent “Spencer” from falling into the trappings of so many generic biopics.
While Stewart may be “Spencer’s” best bet for awards glory, the technical accomplishments should earn the film a slew of nominations. Every visual element of the film is stunning – from Claire Mathon’s beautiful cinematography to Guy Hendrix Dyas’ artful production design and Jacqueline Durran’s brilliant costume design – all while Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood sets it all to a hauntingly beautiful score. When that many below-the-line contenders come together, along with a Best Actress front-runner, no one should be surprised to see “Spencer” in the Best Picture conversation.
Kristen Stewart is bound to get the majority of the attention surrounding “Spencer” – and deservedly so – but that should not detract from the all-around greatness Pablo Larraín has achieved here. “Spencer” is brutal, pulling no punches when it comes to breaking down its protagonist, but what it also does is begin to put her back together. While we all know the story’s tragic end, this happy one is enough for now.
“Spencer” releases in theaters November 5, 2021.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.