The casting with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana is great, and the top-down convertible finale is great. So why is the rest of Pablo Larraine’s Spencer is an empty exercise in high camp?
Not so long ago, the Chilean director Larrain created another myth-making meditation in a similar conceptual “Jackie”. It was also an exquisitely stylish film, starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, and Mickey Levy’s poignant dissonant music. This is again an empathetic yet outstanding exploration of characters (this time a jazz score by Johnny Greenwood) about personality and personality in the cauldron of 20th century fame and tragedy.
“Jackie” had the sharp edges of a psychological thriller and enveloped himself in memories of a woeful past. Spencer, which opens in theaters on Friday, is more like a ghost story – a dreamy deluxe version of The Shining, replacing the Overlook Hotel with the Royal Sandringham Estate, where Princess Diana mostly wanders around alone and stifles anxiety. When she escapes at night and the guards come to her with flashlights, Diana tells them: “Let’s say you saw a ghost.”
This is often the case in Stephen Knight’s Spencer (Eastern Promises, Locke) with too much piquancy. Everything is in quotes. Everything is metaphorical and gloomy. It’s 1991, six years before Diana’s death, but in the midst of a rift with the royal family. By now, Diana knows about Charles’s romance with Camilla Parker Bowles; at this Christmas meeting, she allegedly decided to end the marriage. At Spencer, the family has already prepared knives for Diana. They blame her.
“I’m a magnet for madness,” she says. “Someone else’s madness.”
But it will take some time before Diana comes into contact with almost anyone. Larrain opens the film with an army cavalcade on the tree-lined road to Sandringham – heavy holiday preparations. All the royal trappings in Spencer are militaristic and, as we understand it, potentially fatal to Diana. Her suspicious tutor is the Major (Timothy Spall), and the cook (Sean Harris) quotes a battle speech from Henry V. “Will they kill me?” Diana asks him, referring to the royal family.
But before we meet them, Diana wanders the nearby hills in her convertible. She walks into a cafe to ask directions. As everyone stares, she plays the lost princess, absorbing the scene. When she is late, Diana is left alone. Spencer includes brief appearances of Charles (Jack Farthing) and Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet), but Larrain’s film is a dreamy and stylish scene drawn entirely from Diana’s distraught interior. “Spencer” is presented as “a fable from a real tragedy.”
In both Jackie and Spencer, Larrain deserves credit for avoiding the expected biographical structure. (Some even started to wonder if he can fight Britney Spears next time.) Each portrait is empathetic and exploratory. But abstract, subtle guesswork is not a particularly revealing substitute for biographical convention. The drama is drawn so dramatically – Diana, overwhelmed by the traditions and constraints of the evil royal family – that she is caught in a recurring volley of gossip meetings (Sally Hawkins appears as Diana’s trusted maid), sweet moments with her sons (played by Jack Neelen and Freddie Spree) and increasingly abstract scenes of Diana’s bulimia and her impending fate with apparitions from Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson).
Washes away any of this? Not really, but “Spencer” – at times playful to the point of stupidity – is so strongly symbolic that its fragile connection to any historical reality may be irrelevant. Spencer may actually be more about Kristen Stewart than Princess Dee. The trick of the casting lies in the many parallels between Stewart and Diana: both young women appear before the microscope with their own celebrity burdens and pleasures. Some people praise Stewart’s technicality – accent, gestures – but for me the performance has nothing to do with transformation. You won’t forget for a moment that it is Stewart playing Diana, and you can easily accept all of Diana’s rebellions as Stewart’s own actions. Spencer may sound as disappointing as the story of Diana, but as an exaggerated portrait of Stewart, it is compelling.
“Spencer,” a Neon release, has been rated an R by the Motion Picture Association of America for several languages. The duration of the performance is 111 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP writer Jake Coyle on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP