By Tim Nacey
At the beginning of “Spencer,” Diana (Kristen Stewart) — still Princess of Wales, but not by choice — stops her car in the middle of a deserted country road and runs off to take an old, dirty and tattered leather jacket from a scarecrow. She takes it back to the house and has Maggie (Sally Hawkins) clean and mend it.
It’s a strange image, but once you spend a harrowing Christmas weekend with her at Sandringham House, you’ll understand just why this was so important to her.
Despite how quiet it is, “Spencer” plays a lot like a horror movie in many ways. You have a woman who wants nothing to do with her soon-to-be ex-husband, but is forced to spend time with him and the rest of the Royal Family for the sake of her two sons.
Diana is suffering from some severe mental health crises at the moment, but everyone is more worried about what this will do to the family’s reputation than her well-being. She’s surrounded by people all hours of the day yet, all these faces feel decidedly less than friendly. A lot of this is due to the cinematography. Since there’s no one for Diana to talk to — her best friend in the house is sent away at the end of the first act, and she doesn’t want to burden her sons — the camera serves as the wordless narrator of her comfort levels and various emotional states.
The camera will sometimes be at a nice, pleasant conversation distance. Then, Timothy Spall’s head of security suddenly enters, and we abruptly blink to a tighter close-up shot.
Other times, she’ll just be wandering the house and the camera will be far away from her, filling the frame with background and architecture. However, these aren’t meant to be majestic shots. The intended focus is Diana and evokes a sense of how small this world is making her feel.
As dazzling as the visuals are, the true MVP of “Spencer” is Kristen Stewart. There are many out there that may still be hung up on her “Twilight” days, but this movie shows that she’s not only better than that material but also, given the right material, absolutely staggering.
Throughout the grueling weekend over which this movie takes place, Diana is put through an absolute gauntlet, going from emotion to emotion on a dime. She loves her kids and can goof around with them in private. However, she’s also bullied by her in-laws and mocked by her husband for her bulimia.
Just like in real life, no one is sad or happy all the time. We alternate between different moods, and Kristen Stewart is excellent at playing the individual, transitory, and simultaneous emotions.
Overall, even if you’re like me and have never paid all that much attention to the British Royal Family and all their issues, I can guarantee that there’s something for you here. The dazzling cinematography and Kristen Stewart’s transformative performance make “Spencer” one of the best movies of the year.