Christmas With the Royals- SPENCER

By Daniel Mendes, NRFTW Contributor

Holiday get-togethers can feel overwhelming and dreadful, but imagine a dinner with the royal family constantly scrutinizing your every move. Part biopic and part fable, Pablo Larrain’s Spencer is a claustrophobic, nightmarish look into the psyche of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart). Set during Christmas in 1991, Princess Diana navigates her way through the British royal family’s holiday celebration and all the traditions that come with it. 

Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana is intimate and vulnerable. She conveys the feelings of anxiety and dread in a way few can, which makes her the perfect for this role. One reason her performance feels so honest is possibly due to her experience as a public figure having had her fair share of media scrutiny. From her breakout role in Twilight to the affair with Snow White and The Huntsman director Rupert Sanders, her status as a movie star has constantly placed her under a microscope. Those experiences can be felt in her portrayal of the People’s Princess. It’s an all-too-real deconstruction of celebrity and the terrors of publicity.

Regardless of one’s familiarity with Princess Diana, the film functions on its own terms as a character drama about a woman trapped by an obligation to tradition that she’s helpless to escape. At the start of the film, Diana sits on a scale before the holiday festivities. The intent of this tradition is to see if the guest gained weight after the holiday weekend, implying they enjoyed themselves. When one considers Diana’s battle with bulimia, there’s a very real sense of terror in being obligated to follow this outdated and unhealthy tradition.

The supporting cast surrounding Stewart provides some equally noteworthy performances. Known mainly for his role in the recent Mission: Impossible films, Sean Harris’ performance as the Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady shows his ability to be more than just sinister. Sally Hawkins’ performance as Princess Diana’s dresser and friend Maggie is the anchor that keeps Diana and the audience from going off the rails from the madness that is the holiday weekend. Rounding out the supporting cast is Timothy Spall as Major Alistair Gregory. His performance serves to contrast to the warm and encouraging characters of Harris and Hawkins.

Jacqueline Durran’s spectacular costume design from lavish dresses to basic casual wear, balances Diana’s larger-than-life persona with her private self. None of the costumes resonate as much as the simple sweater and jeans outfit that she sports at the end of Christmas dinner. After an entire day of wearing gorgeous yet constrictive clothing, the sweater and jeans provide a sense of relief and comfort.

In the dinner sequence, cinematographer Claire Mathon cages Diana with tight close-ups that capture her sense of anxiety and claustrophobia. The terror of this sequence is further intensified by Johnny Greenwood’s dissonant score which makes use of screeching strings to create an uneasy atmosphere.  

The film is at its weakest when it attempts to balance a variety of different tones. The tonal inconsistencies make it seem directionless at times, but overall, Spencer has more than enough atmosphere and tension to carry it through. 

Stewart’s performance should earn her an Oscar nomination. She seems to have found the essence of Diana. Spencer is an introspective, frightening, and artful look at the themes of tradition, oppression, and the struggle for freedom. It’s an effective drama that will ignite conversations long after audiences leave the theater. Fans of period dramas do not miss your chance to view Spencer on the big screen.

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