SPENCER (Movie Review)

Kristen Stewart’s admirable method immersion as Princess Diana is undercut by cheap melodrama.

**1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for some strong language, including crude sexual references)
Released: November 5, 2021
Runtime: 117 minutes
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Laura Benson, Stella Gonet, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Amy Manson

Spencer is a one-dimensional portrait of Princess Diana, and exactly the kind you’d expect. Instead of offering insight, Spencer merely peddles in the obvious.

Billed as “a fable from a true tragedy,” it’s clear from the outset that Spencer will take extreme dramatic license with its subject, to the point that it completely fictionalizes an account during the mid-1980s when, during a three-day Christmas holiday, Diana came to realize that her marriage with Prince Charles was effectively over.

There’s nothing wrong with doing that.

If anything, it’s a daring and admirable gamble, especially when the goal is to get at the heart of what a real-life subject went through. Even if the telling is a fiction, the hope — the goal — is to glean something truthful and honest, an understanding of who that person was, what he or she experienced, and how it formed who they became.

That was certainly the result of Jackie, director Pablo Larraín’s mesmerizing and underappreciated 2016 film about Jackie Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband (and President) Jack.

That’s not, however, the result of Larraín’s Spencer.

Yes, it’s most likely that Diana felt alone within a Royal Family that was cold to her. It’s also safe to assume that she felt trapped by the demands of being a Royal (including having her daily life scheduled to the minute, her outfits assigned for each occasion on that calendar, et al.). Indeed, these are things that Diana herself was rather candid about.

But Spencer is a simplistic, even shallow examination of what those things did to her.

To put it bluntly, Spencer merely concludes that Diana’s time as a royal turned her into a basket case. Not only is that tedious and facile, but it robs Diana of the virtues she was ultimately defined by and most admired for: her strength and integrity.

It also undercuts Kristen Stewart’s credible transformation into the iconic figure.

The former Twilight starlet is convincing as Diana, even uncanny; but without any levels or nuance provided by the script from Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) or allowed through Larraín’s invariant melodrama, Stewart’s performance is reduced to a breathless, caricatured monotony. Her arc? Merely an increasingly loose grasp on sanity itself, with a mental breakdown into paranoia and madness that borders close to mockery. 

By the final half-hour, one begins to wonder if this psychotic unraveling is intended to be empathetic or, rather, a secretly-authorized biography by the House of Windsor itself. The only sympathy it conjures is for the poor, helpless staff that has to put up with Diana’s erratic outbursts and unwarranted lashes.

Larrain’s ambition here may be to craft a Royal Horror Movie, with Diana as the haunted (and some of the aesthetic choices would suggest as much, including composer Jonny Greenwood’s eerie, dissonant jazz score), but it feels misguided, unsure in its application or where, exactly, the effective meter is for such an unorthodox genre mashup. 

That tonal uncertainty is a stark difference from Spencer‘s otherwise sophisticated artistry. From the stunning elegance of Balmoral (the Windsor’s rural retreat), resplendent with sets and costumes that reflect a pastel Christmas palette of reds, greens and whites, to the era-appropriate visual grain of the 16MM film stock on which the movie was shot, Spencer is quite striking.

The cast is effective, too, particularly Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins who play supportive staff members that Diana can trust, as well as Timothy Spall who, as the Head of Service Staff for the royals, is a deftly calculating Windsor loyalist. Hawkins especially shines late in a scene involving an admission, one that brings a rare spark of the unexpected and much-needed character depth (the kind that opens up intriguing implications and possibilities). It also provides a levity that the rest of this dirge could’ve used more of.

Knight’s screenplay meanders through contrived vignettes, each meant to serve as sequential triggers for the Princess. Rather than portraying formal, mannered exchanges that simmer with subtext, everything here is text and literal. Anxieties are blatantly verbalized, as are exasperations about about what it’s like to live under various microscopes (Royal, Media, and so on), and metaphors are on-the-nose (including hallucinations of Anne Boleyn).

This Diana is never strong, only a fragile, Fabergé egg of a victim.

If Spencer had swung entirely the other way into hagiography, that too would’ve proved reductionist. But it also would’ve been less superficial, perhaps even noble, and served as a worthwhile tribute to Diana’s memory and legacy. Instead, we’re left with highbrow tabloid cinema.

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