Spencer ★★★★½

Spencer was my biggest movie surprise of 2021 so far, even if I didn't catch it until 2022. It's got a primal energy that goes right for the throat and rarely lets up, almost recalling the one hundred minute panic attack of Good Time in its constant tension throttling. At turns sad, manic, and even dreamy, the whole film breathes in a nervy atmosphere that feels closer to an end of the world drama or a horror movie than any sort of biopic I thought it was going to be.

In fact, this is one of the best biopics I've ever seen. Admittedly, I'm not normally a fan of the genre. I actually avoid most of the big oscar contender examples every year. Too many of them follow the same tired formula, with the same structure and rhythm no matter how different the real life subject. I dislike them so much that my favorite music biopic is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - not joking at all. It's fun, genuinely funny, playful with those standard biopic beats, and obviously in love with the genre and its rock & roll subjects. Spencer is absolutely nothing like that, though.

The up close and extremely personal, stylized and fictionalized style suits this story perfectly and lets the movie go off the rails in the best kind of way, conjuring real feeling and empathy for someone I previously had little-to-no interest in whatsoever as a historical figure. I know Diana is absolutely beloved around the world, and I still remember how massive a deal it was when she died when I was thirteen years old, but I never cared to know much about any of the royals. However, I kept seeing great reviews for the movie on here from many of my friends whose tastes I trust, and I am so thankful to them because this is one of the best movies of 2021 for me so far. I can't believe it - a biopic! Of a princess, no less!

It's funny, when I pressed play I noticed that the splash page listed a very high critic score and a very low audience score from rotten tomatoes. I figured, well that means it's probably not super flattering for its subject, and the Diana fans are outraged - and a quick look around the web afterward seemed to confirm that. This blip from CBC was the top google result and reads like bone-dry poetry: "The movie Spencer is receiving criticism from some Princess Diana fans who say it leans too hard into the more tragic and unflattering aspects of her life. But actress Kristen Stewart, who plays Diana, says that’s actually the point of the movie, and many women may see their lives reflected on the big screen." It's also utterly true.

Spencer feels real and alive and bursting with empathy for not only its extremely famous subject but the human condition itself. The specific pressures of Diana's existence over Christmas 1991 at Sandringham estate are used to submerge us in the headspace of someone sick with anxiety and practically crawling out of her own skin, wanting control, escape, something, anything different than this. This very specific subject in a very specific time and place ends up the perfect vehicle for achieving a kind of transcendent stress experience. I felt dizzy whirling through those endless hallways, reminiscent of The Shining's Overlook Hotel. I felt that urge to disappear into the night in my bones. I could feel those pearls going down. I can feel the lump in my throat just thinking about it.

The cinematography by Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Atlantiques) combines with the nu-classical / free jazz score by Jonny Greenwood to create an utterly hypnotic presentation, provoking and elevating each other into a sensory frenzy that had me unblinking, pulled inexorably onward as the story burrowed deeper into this soul in crisis. But it's not all darker and darkest: taking flight in its final moments, the movie made my heart soar and blasted a smile on my face with the best needle drop of the year set over a moment of unfettered bliss. It's shadowed by the sad reality of what we know happened only a few short years later, but that only renders this brief part in the clouds all the more joyous.

In that final moment, I don't need to believe that Kristen Stewart is Princess Diana (she's fantastic though) or that everything on screen actually happened in real life. Biopics that focus on that aspect get it all wrong, I think. Because here, in that moment, I believe she's a loving mom, escaping a toxic home situation with her children for a brief, exuberant moment of freedom. My parents divorced the year before Charles and Diana, and my sister and I took a lot of drives just like that with our mom, replete with fast food and pop ballads sung along at top volume. Looking back I realize they were her little respites from the turmoil at home, savoring time with us that wasn't clouded by arguments or fighting. Like Diana, my mom is also long gone, but the loss never dulls the memory of those days, that look of elation on her face. Stewart captured that feeling in bright, jubilant detail, capping off an elegant crescendo of a movie in style.

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