Pablo Larraín's Spencer opens with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana uttering "Where the f*ck am I?" It is a fitting line to being with. Not only does it play to the scene as Diana is lost in the English countryside trying to get to the Sandringham estate for Christmas but it perfectly encapsulates the state Diana will be in for most of this mesmerizing film. Spencer claims itself as "a fable from a true tragedy." This allows the film to move beyond the iconography associated with the People's Princess and create a portrait that is more ethereal and ghostly. Stewart is able to create an honest portrait of Diana by avoiding the idea most of us have of her.
Steven Knight's screenplay only covers three days surrounding Christmas in 1991. Charles (Jack Farthing) has had an affair and their marriage is strained. One gets a sense throughout Spencer that Diana just wants time and privacy to process the transgressions of her husband. However, in the Royal family, such privacy is a luxury that does not exist. Diana is watched all the time. At one point, she tells her children "There is no future here, the past and present are the same thing."
There isn't much plot here, which may try some audience's patience. If you find yourself bored in the film, you are missing everything that makes it so wonderful. Diana goes through the motions of several rituals of the crown. She must make it to several meals, in the dresses that were chosen for her. God forbid she is late or wants a moment to herself. She is constantly haunted by the pressure to measure up and by the ghost of Anne Boleyn, a wife of King Henry who was beheaded for having an affair. She didn't, it was King Henry who was sleeping around. These pressures and literal ghosts reflect the frantic state Diana is in.
From the very first time we see her, Stewart is magnetic. She is playing a character on the edge. Jonny Greenwood's incredible, jittery score matches her mental state. His score sometimes sounds like an orchestra tuning up but never actually getting to the playing. Other times is a skittering jazz tune with discordant strings and a haunting horn. The music keeps you in a state of agitation. It is only when a pop song comes on towards the end of the film that you get some auditory relief. It perfectly matches Diana's feelings at the moment and shows the craft of the filmmaking here. Claire Mathon's camera work is claustrophobic, putting us in Diana's situation of not being able to escape.
I may have described the film as a psychological horror film, and it often is, but there is a thread of humor here. It comes from Stewart as Diana. She has a wit to her and a punk attitude at times that makes you fall for her. The scenes with her sons are genuinely moving and warming. You can feel how they are her solace.
Larraín has tackled a historical woman before with his Jackie. Similarly, that film looked at a few days of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Spencer is stronger and it may come down to Stewart's performance. It is a career-best for her and one of the year's most essential performances. In fact, the whole film feels like everyone involved is working at the peak of their powers. Spencer is one of the year's best films.