Monday, December 6, 2021

‘Spencer’ Review: Kristen Stewart Is Shining, But This Is Not A Biopic

The Times aims to analyze theater releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the risks involved in visiting movies during this time, we remind readers to follow the safety and health guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health authorities.

Spencer takes place over three chilly days at Sandringham, a large estate in the Norfolk countryside. It starts on Christmas Eve, but the mood is far from festive. Heavy vehicles ride in a grim procession, every tire barely escaping the dead pheasant lying on the road. (Consider this a mercy killing; the bird was raised for the upcoming Boxing Day hunt.) Armed soldiers march through the courtyard carrying cargo in tightly sealed containers. Is this a rifle warehouse? No, just fresh meat and vegetables for a feast under the watchful eye of a battle-weary chef (Sean Harris), who encourages his employees to work quietly: “They can hear you.”

“They” are, of course, members of the royal family, and all of them will be arriving here soon, save for the most famous and troublesome. As a result of one of the latest protocol violations, Diana, Princess of Wales (the mesmerizing Kristen Stewart), abandoned her security staff and left London herself, getting lost and distracted along the way. Arriving for a few hours at the event with military precision, Diana rushes into the driveway like a stray rocket, and this image is enhanced by the bird’s eye view of her convertible approaching the complex. Don’t call “Spencer” a biopic; in those moments it’s closer to a war movie.

The battle lines are clearly marked. It’s December 1991, and the death throes of Diana’s marriage have begun, although neither Chilean director Pablo Larrain nor British screenwriter Stephen Knight makes much use of hard facts or timelines. They believe their audience is well aware of the entire tortured saga, perhaps through watching countless shows and films about Diana’s life, or scrutinizing the headlines that haunted her to her grave and beyond. Now, 24 years after her death, we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown Diana session, her legacy being immortalized anew on Netflix programs like Crown and (off) Diana: The Musical, and significantly prompting the latest public protests from the royal family. Her place in the hearts of the monarchy-obsessed public seems more secure than ever.

All of this could make Spencer repetitive at best and exploitative at worst. On the contrary, it frees Larrain and Knight from any obligation to be exhaustive or definitive, let alone adhere to the art-killing conventions of a prestigious Hollywood biopic. Why give the heroine of Diana’s iconic stature and expressive power to one genre? The hardships of the royal family have long been compared to the throes of a soap opera, but “Spencer”, even though it achieves the emotional extravagance of first-class melodrama, refuses to limit itself. It is a historical fantasy, claustrophobic thriller and comedy film. a dark comedy of manners, balancing on the edge of a knife between tabloid rubbish and high art.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer.


Most often it is a portrait of a woman under siege. Increasingly depressed and isolated, Diana refuses to see her relatives or wear dresses (brilliantly designed by Jacqueline Durrant) that have been set aside for every occasion. (Each garment bag has a “POW” label, which of course can be read in two ways.) This is hardly a fair fight from her point of view: she was trapped in enemy territory and outnumbered. But as far as the audience is concerned, it has an unshakable emotional advantage. After all, it is Diana, the princess of the people, whose glamorous beauty and warm, unstoppable humanity have long dominated public sympathies and denounced the cold establishment she married. Equally important, it’s Kristen Stewart, the headstrong epitome of the Hollywood royal family, who throws themselves into a kind of dazzling celebrity turn that turns co-stars into commoners and makes Oscar predictors swoon.

Normally, I wouldn’t take it as a compliment. But Stewart has long confused our notions of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and her brilliant prismatic play is both a natural continuation of her image and a nervous deviation from it. Her best previous roles have been the witty subversive riffs of her own mega-celebrity: playing humble star assistants in Clouds of Sils Maria and Olivier Assayas’s The Personal Shopper, Stewart electrified the camera’s gaze, though she seemed to deflect it. Her flint naturalism took on a paradoxical radiance.

In Spencer, she achieves an equally wonderful alchemy in radically different ways. At first glance, these remedies may seem common: a blonde wig, a British accent, and a variety of acting styles – muffled, hoarse intonations, nervously rushing eye movements – that are a little annoying when you first meet them. But by the time Diana arrives at Sandringham, where she is secluded in her quarters and shows little intention of going out, the illusion is eerily gripping.

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What gives Stewart’s acting a particular resonance goes far beyond skillful technique; it is a sense of spiritual kinship, indescribable yet unmistakable, created by an actor who knows a thing or two about the trappings of fame and the violent gossip. Stewart has a hard time handling the character; she allows Diana to experience moments of anger and self-pity, and those who have always considered the princess a wayward victim or an intriguing manipulator will not find their opinion completely refuted. However, Stewart’s underlying compassion never fades. Always good at showing awkwardness and insecurity, she especially understands Diana’s innate shyness, her restless anxiety in this hostile environment.

Her discomfort at every turn is compounded by Larrain’s filmmaking, which often uses feverish language of psychological horror – and more than camp whispers – to induce a mood of ruthless extreme. The camera, owned by the great cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantic), chases Diana down the hallways and chases her through her chambers, where she boils and falls into despair. The music shudders with all the nervous lyrics you’d expect from Johnny Greenwood (adding another great score to the piece, which includes “There Will Be Blood” and “You Were Never Really Here”). Diana’s wardrobe transforms into a gorgeous prison, from the string of pearls that constantly tightens around her neck to the stunning Chanel dress she wears when she vomits down the toilet.

Kristen Stewart in the cinema "Diana."

Kristen Stewart in Diana.

(Pablo Larrain / Neon)

And amid the shadows of Sandringham (beautifully nominated by production designer Guy Hendrix Diaz), cinematic hints appear and multiply. Fans of Larrain will naturally lean towards his previously curled tale of Jackie, in which Natalie Portman plays the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, and with which Spencer will do an incredible transatlantic double count. The tender moments that Diana shares with her beloved sons, Prince William (Jack Neelen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry), briefly take on the eerie candlelight from Jack Clayton’s Innocents. Sandringham himself is beginning to echo the labyrinthine outlines of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and its corridors are equally replete with the ghosts of the past.

The most notable ghost is Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), whose own famous case of unhappy life is a grim but all too obvious reflection of Diana’s plight. This is the script’s heaviest motive and a reminder that Knight, as erratic as he is prolific, has a weakness for repetition of already crude metaphors. He is also fascinated by dramas of confinement (Locke, but also Locked), and here he shrewdly places Diana in a vice, both in time and in space. The more precise the focus, the more intimate Spencer becomes.

In keeping with the film’s strong subjectivity, the other royals are almost invisible; even Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and the Queen (Stella Gonet) are only given a few short breaths. Diana, a perpetually outsider, has more meaningful interactions with her few palace staff allies, especially her beloved dresser Maggie (the always lovely Sally Hawkins), who convinces her to stay strong and strong. More belligerent, if not entirely unsympathetic, is the groom, Major Alistair Gregory (the excellent Timothy Spall), who keeps the hearing on schedule and warns Diana of the prying eyes of the paparazzi lurking behind their windows. Ironically, intense media attention might have been preferable to unbearable control by the royal family.

And that scrutiny – so much attention, so little love – is what accelerates Diana’s fateful actions in Spencer, a film in which little seems to be happening, but in which decisive shifts nonetheless occur. The title of the film suggests that in order to move forward in her life, Diana must look back. Sandringham ended up close to the estate where she grew up – now boarded up, but still a powerful repository of memories rooted in happier, more innocent times. Some of them return in Spencer’s most striking looks: a lemon-yellow sailor suit, a little girl’s energetic running, a battered jacket adorning a long-forgotten scarecrow. Perhaps this is the most bittersweet hint in the film, an echo of another fairy tale that knows there is no place like home.


Rating: R, for some language

Duration: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Plays: Starts November 5th in general release

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