Heavy Lies the Crown – Spencer (2021)

I know…I haven’t been as on top of the film reviews as I’d like to be, but that doesn’t mean I stopped going to the movies either. When Eternals arrived to dominate the box office, I used that opening night to check out an indie film I’ve been hearing about for what seems like several years. Kristen Stewart turns in the finest performance of her career as the iconic Princess Diana when the pressures of the British Royal family have become too much to bear in Spencer.

Princess Diana (left) and Kristen Stewart (right) in character

Said to be a fable based on true events, the film takes place over a Christmas weekend at the Sandringham estate where Diana’s mental health spirals as the walls of fame and obligation to the crown close in around her. 

No disrespect to the many people that were involved in this film, but this is Kristen Stewart’s film. This isn’t a story where’s she’s playing Princess Diana over the course of her time in the public eye as part of the Royal Family, so the narrative work is all hers. This was a very condensed story where she has to own all the history, the baggage, and the nuance of the character while having a very narrow scope to play it all. Stewart internalizes all of that very well and her version of Diana struggles to keep that all inside. There is more than a decade of background and subtext to the character that all come spilling out of her in a few days and that’s what makes it such an exceptional performance. 

Director Pablo Larraín working with Stewart on a flashback scene

This film is almost the exact opposite of Pablo Larraín’s other film that was released in 2021 (Ema) but there are some familiar themes of women dealing with immense internal and external pressures. I appreciate that his vision for this film allowed his leading lady to tell this story. When you look back on it, there aren’t many other significant roles because it is Diana’s story to be told and that’s a big part of the beauty of this film. 

One element that helps amplify Stewart’s performance is the incredible original score by Jonny Greenwood. The Radiohead lead guitarist has become one of my very favorite film composers and his music for this film is such a big part of the emotional timbre of the story. The combination of string instruments and heavy drums is operatic and you can feel the intensity and sadness deeply. 

It’s scenes like this where all the complexities of the character come crashing together beneath the surface

Greenwood’s music is an excellent accompaniment to Steven Knight’s screenplay. It focuses on who Diana was away from the cameras rather than in front of them. While none of it may have been factual, it says a lot that the people who knew Diana praised Stewart’s performance and that means Knight got a lot of things right. 

You know Jacqueline Durran had a great time doing the costumes for this film. Fashion is such a big part of celebrity culture and, in the Royal Family, it’s all about excess. Diana had so many different looks and there’s a small portion of the film dedicated specifically to her wardrobes and the very rigid guidelines for when to wear each particular outfit.

I can say with confidence that Spencer is one of the 10-Best movies of the year, so far, but it’ll be interesting to see how far it goes. Stewart should rightfully be in the serious contenders for Best Actress and Greenwood for Original Score, but I’ll have to wait and see about the rest. It gets a little bogged down at points but you can still see the care and skill that went into its making. 

Recommendation: See if for Stewart’s enchanting turn as Princess Diana, stay for the music and the condemnation of celebrity culture surrounding the British Royal Family backed by Greenwood’s fantastic score. 


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