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TIFF Film Review: ‘Spencer’ is Kristen Stewart’s Finest Hour and An Hypnotically Immersive Experience

NEON
NEON

Wow. I have seen the performance of the year. In fact, I also think I may well have seen the film of the year. The last movie II saw on the ground in Canada is the crowning (no pun intended) achievement of 2021 right now. Capping off my in person segment of the Toronto International Film Festival, Spencer is a stunning achievement. Not just a brilliantly engaging character study, it also gives Kristen Stewart the opportunity to blow you away. If you’ve been a fan of hers for years, this is the culmination of years of strong work that went below the radar. If you’ve been a detractor, this is the turn that will get you on board with her. Stewart blew the roof off of TIFF and she’s coming for Oscar next.

Spencer is not your garden variety biopic. Instead, it’s a self-contained, somewhat fictionalized, and deeply impressionistic look at Diana, Princess of Wales. In some ways, it functions as a ghost story. Presented her as a fable about a real life tragedy, it very much plays that way. Those seeking traditional historical fiction will be disappointed (The Crown, this is not), but something unsettlingly perfect emerges instead.

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Taking place during the Christmas holiday, we see the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, setting up for the arrival of the royal family. It’s done with military precision, and in fact, in conjunction with the military. As that procession is occurring, Diana (Stewart) is lost on the back roads. Clearly dreading the annual event, she’s almost happy to be away. Found by the head chef (Sean Harris), it’s quickly shown how she’s an outcast to the family, looked over with almost pity by the staff, and only shown affection by her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). The Queen (Stella Gonet) barely acknowledges her presence, while her husband Charles (Jack Farthing) resents her not going along to get along. During this holiday, she might as well be a prisoner, especially as she’s repeatedly denied the chance to go visit her childhood home.

While others murmur about Diana, she has a friend in dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins). This season has also brought a supervisor to the staff in (Timothy Spall), who Diana is unsettled by. It’s clear that she’s working through the end of her marriage, while struggling with the box being royalty has put her in. As is said in the film by Diana, the royals don’t have a future, while their past and present are one and the same. Suffocated by that, we watch as she lashes out, desperate to be an individual.

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Kristen Stewart deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actress, full stop. Disappearing into the role of Diana, there isn’t a moment in Spencer where you’re seeing Stewart. It’s only the Princess of Wales. It certainly doesn’t hurt that some of the paparazzi elements and external pressures laid at Diana’s feet resemble things the actress has gone through, but it’s still a performance for the ages. Tightly wound but full of personality, she shows you why this human being captured the imagination of so many. Especially in one particular sequence, she makes the woman truly come alive. The supporting cast is solid, with Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, and Timothy Spall having their moments, but they’re decidedly in the background. Also on hand is Richard Sammel, among others, but this is rightly all about Stewart.

Pablo Larraín worked wonders with a similar idea in Jackie, and he again strikes gold here with Spencer. The director, armed this time with a Steven Knight screenplay, makes sure to keep the focus on his leading lady. This feels both more and less stylish than Jackie, but interestingly, he’s hit on a more hypnotic protagonist. The score from Jonny Greenwood evokes a ton, while Knight gets somewhat literal with his metaphors (the Anne Boleyn elements walk up to that line), though things never become pretentious. Larraín is often studying Stewart from the director’s chair, courtest of Claire Mathon‘s cinematography, which mixes quite well with how Knight is pondering Diana. Then, there’s the finale, which features a perfect musical selection, as well as a brilliantly earned release of emotion. For something that traffics in an known eventual tragedy, the final moments are literally filled with joy.

Awards-wise, Spencer should be a major player for Kristen Stewart. Throughout the season, she should be a force in Best Actress. Aside from Actress, it’s hard to say. Best Picture citations are worthy, but is it a bit obtuse for Oscar? Keep an eye out for Larraín in Best Director if not. Below the line, Jonny Greenwood’s score in Best Original Score should be one to watch out for, as it’s more brilliant work from him.

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Spencer won’t soon be forgotten. Not just because it brilliantly ponders a figure so many still think about, but because it showcases a performance for the ages from Kristen Stewart. TIFF had a ton of good flicks, but nothing compares to this one. It won’t be for everyone, but everyone should give it a chance. NEON has another idiosyncratic masterpiece on their hands, as well as an Academy Award vehicle for Stewart.

SCORE: ★★★★

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  1. While I have yet to see either film, so I obviously don’t want to get ahead of myself…

    It seems like The Eyes of Tammy Faye is getting pretty lambasted by the critical community (in the 50s on Metacritic and it keeps falling) and the only thing anyone is saying is somewhat worthwhile in the film is Jessica Chastain’s performance. Now, that doesn’t mean an actor can’t win for a good performance in a mediocre or even poor film. We’ve certainly seen it before. (Bohemian Rhapsody, anybody?)

    But it seems much more likely that the AMPAS and the rest of the awards will embrace a film that is getting (overall) universal acclaim, even if it is still a bit “obtuse” for some of the members. I guess we shall see.

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Written by Joey Magidson

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