Pablo Larraín always finds an interesting angle onto his subjects. He doesn’t have a flashy style, but walks the line between easy-to-consume and artistic with skill.
Spencer is about Princess Diana, but its story is unconcerned with “life events.” Instead, it explores her inner life — the psychology of living within the monarchy and what comes with it. It is less a biopic than an impressionistic, cinematic portrait. A slice of life over a fairly nondescript series of days at the palace.
The photography is brilliant. Some shots, such as Christmas decorations in the palace, glow with an unreality that feels like a fairy tale with something sinister and deceptively false about it. That’s something close to how Larraín’s movie shows the monarchy.
Close-up shots of Diana (Kristen Stewart) have the opposite feeling to hyperreal shots of royal splendour — they show Diana as expressive in emotion, joyful, light-shining. They give the movie an authentic life force.
Sounds design is great, too. Deafening rabble suggests overwhelming monotony. Sharp sonic stabs break through reality to deliver disquieting visions. Quiet, gentle, or harmonic sounds create positive and negative moods at different times (stifling and uptight, or soft and caring). The soundtrack is sparse, but its selections are well-chosen.
The movie presents the institution of monarchy as an imposing relic of an oppressive past. Royalty from centuries gone appear to Diana in anxiety-ridden dreams, flashing into her sight like undead messengers coming to both haunt her and save her from their fate.
This is a horror film with the monarchy as a dark force that conjures false realities. Always watching, stifling the joy of life. The escape from it is into the relatively glorious normality of everyday life — fast food and popular culture, sightseeing as a tourist in the big city, or stopping into a roadside café to ask directions.
The film captures moments of life, in the sense of a moment where you feel truly alive and present, and moments of death, in the sense of a moment where death feels preferable to the life in front of you. These moments burst from the screen and carry surprising emotional resonance.