Helen Mirren in William Oldroyd’s new film, “Spencer,” plays the British title character, who, in the film’s opening scenes, goes to jail for stealing a ride on a train. The basic facts may have remained the same, but in how that character’s fate was handled by the film’s actors, the character has undergone an evolution.
Most of the time, male movie characters in dramas get to undergo dramatic existential changes for the sake of dramatic dramatic change, but Mirren’s title character here is ready to accept the newly bleak reality she faces.
Mirren’s discovery that she would be coming out of prison is meant to be momentous. But instead of becoming the woman she thought she was, she would become something different. The film’s director, William Oldroyd, conveyed that transformation using only two actors’ lips and a camera that tracked their movement.
“Sometimes as an actor, you can’t trust what’s going to happen,” Stewart, who plays a woman who witnesses Spencer at work, told the New York Times. But “helping her understand what’s going to happen, and hoping she can move with it and then where she’s going to go and how, that really was one of the greatest gifts.”
Mirren’s performance has attracted a great deal of attention, but critics are also likely to give a lot of consideration to that of Toby Jones, who plays a conspiracy theorist with whom Spencer becomes an unlikely ally. I have watched the film twice, and both times, these two actors were riveting. (In a unanimous review, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis called Jones’ performance “mastery.”)
The moments between Jones and Mirren were especially impressive. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Spencer confesses the seduction of King Edward VIII, whose liaison with American divorcee Wallis Simpson posed a major legal and constitutional challenge to the monarchy. Lee Jordan, a liberal who has taken the witness stand to testify against Spencer, appears sympathetic to the king. But Jones continues to talk a great deal while Mirren’s face never changes.
The way Jones narrated the scene made the scene all the more astonishing. Jones kept his faces only if they weren’t being manipulated by the camera. When Lee asked Spencer if she was attracted to his fellow conspirator, Spencer said no. “Why would I be attracted to his cock?” she asked. “You are, even!”
Watch the scene:
Jones, who has recently been praised for his performance in one of the year’s other best-reviewed films, “Vox Lux,” also voiced the cheerful, overly friendly, erudite sex counselor in the latest installment of the “Cats” franchise. But as an actor, he is also known for many great dramatic turns.
In perhaps the most acclaimed performance of his career, Jones earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings.” As of now, we don’t know whether Jones will again have a chance to earn a Oscar nod for his work in “Spencer.”
Nevertheless, the movie is already being talked about as a cinematic revelation. Some news outlets and sites, including Vulture, have mentioned it as the best film of the year.