Official Special Presentation selection of the 57th Chicago International Film Festival
SPENCER– 3 STARS
LESSON #1: WHEN SOMETHING OR SOMEONE IS UNCONVINCING EVEN AFTER MAXIMUM EFFORT— Here’s a curious question for you readers on this awards season review. Have you ever watched an actor or actress try and try, scene after scene, to look a certain part or be taken seriously only to, in the end, remain unconvincing? Most people could cite a few examples over the years (even one last year) if they put their minds to it. This very writer found a new entry for that list, and it’s Kristen Stewart in Spencer.
Don’t get me wrong. The Los Angeleno has matured to become a positively fine actress and a firebrand of nonconformity in an industry where a desirable image is still the over-desired target. On and off-screen, her physical and expressive manner is almost always one of agitation. Pablo Larrain’s Spencer asks Kristen Stewart to channel her malaise of discomfort into the guise of one of the most recognizable societal figures and most poked and prodded reputations of the last century.
Stewart throws everything she has into this pendulum of daintiness and austerity. The actress is granted stunning costumes from two-time Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran (Little Women, Anna Karenina) and impeccable hair and makeup from designer Wakana Yoshihara (Cinderella). Every fiber of her character is gripped by constricting stress and frayed by an onslaught of verbal and nonverbal admonishment from numerous orbiting figures in her life. Stewart does not shy away from these challenges.
Try as she may, though, I look at the woman playing Princess Diana, even with all the clear personal commitment, and all I see is Kristen Stewart. Thanks to her own natural twitches under her blonde helmet of hair, Stewart’s same agape expressions and same exasperating line deliveries land a lip bite or two away from showing us it’s more her than who’s she playing.
Larrain opens this film with the declaration Spencer is “a fable from a true tragedy.” The title character’s opening line, zipping through the British countryside in her Porsche convertible, is “Where the fuck am I?” What a loaded question that is about not only her location, but her state of mind and personal health. She begins lost and gets worse from there on when the human and labeled weights of her life and responsibilities replace the casual drive.
Written by hit-and-miss screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity), Spencer projects its parable across what may have happened during the three-day 1991 Christmas holiday for the Royal Family at the Queen’s famed Sandringham Estate (doubled by a pair of castle shooting locations in Germany). The film frames these days as breaking points that would lead to Charles and Diana’s separation the very next year and the mountain of leaked gossip and scandals that would all follow.
LESSON #2: NO ONE IS ABOVE TRADITION— After the motorcar jaunt that opens the film, Diana arrives late to find strict agendas and antiquated traditions that border on barbaric habits like an orchestrated pheasant hunt and being weighed with the expectation of gaining three pounds for the three days of indulgence. For a rampant bulimic prone to self-harm, vapid obligations like those might as well be shackles for Diana. The best pushback to this comes from Diana’s preferred Royal Dresser named Maggie, played by two-time Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water). Attempting to boost confidence, Maggie proclaims to Diana, “They can’t change. You’re going to have to change.”
True to director Pablo Larrain’s observational storytelling style (see Jackie) that gathers the periphery of people and settings around his central figures, the proverbial “help” like Maggie is given sizable participation positions and equally stellar casting. Hawkins is joined by Sean Harris of the Mission: Impossible series as Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady and Mr. Turner Oscar nominee Timothy Spall as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory. The three are sounding boards offering guidance and empathy to our lost princess.
LESSON #3: “KEEP NOISE TO A MINIMUM. THEY CAN HEAR YOU”— Those two sentences are inscribed on a prominent sign in the basement kitchen overseen by Darren. It’s meant to be a warning to the kitchen staff to not distract the pageantry above them with their racket. In actuality, the noise goes down in the other direction as well. That stunning poster image everyone is raving about is a cropped pose taken from Diana lurching into a toilet. Let that “beauty” sink in. Noise like that can’t be hidden. Even if they were all sworn to secrecy through dutiful employment, more people knew than did not all that transpired and damaged the Royal Family.
Maggie, Darren, and Alistair represent genuine concern. Yet, those folks are virtual strangers versus the dispassionate wall of apathy that stands where a loving and trusting family should be for the Princess of Wales. Staying away for most of the picture, Charles (Jack Farthing of Love Wedding Repeat) shares a snooker room confrontation with Diana that defines that disparity of insolence. You would think one of those balls would be flung as a weapon of exasperation, yet words with low volume cut as sharply as, if not more than, shouted ones.
LESSON #4: MAKING YOUR BODY DO THINGS YOU HATE— Kristen Stewart conveys the dissonance with stares of silent defiance through her monarchical veneer. Her face says more than her withdrawn words, which is right where Stewart resides with her performance. Diana married into a second life that required things to be done “for the good of the country.” In her laments away from the servitude and judgments, she is impetuous to those aforementioned benevolent ears and a whimsical mother to her two sons (newcomers Jack Neilan and Freddie Spry) that adore her. Those confidantes and kin may be the only people that see her as a person instead of a noble title.
The musical score from frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood is atypical for a regal setting and the biopic genre. That said, it’s a little all over the place, which, admittedly, matches the protagonist and her psychological stumbling. Greenwood’s dashes mix all kinds of motifs and instrumentation that never really match. Military and royal presences bring serious strings and will segue to idyllic piano for the natural scenery and a moody smoky jazz feel during crowd scenes and the nervous interiors. Inspired as it may be in concept, the result is a distracting hodgepodge more than an engaging door into the mood. The one surging place Greenwood’s score works is a dialogue-free dance montage that carries a little sweep and pep mixed to the right levels.
Through Wright’s imagined mental wringer, Larrain plays up the fable elements with a heavy creative license to make loud-and-clear allusions and parallels, like Diana reading a planted Anne Boleyn biography. Moving with the hasty imagination of the main character, Spencer can reach a trippy level of desperate daydreams photographed brilliantly and fluidly by Portrait of a Lady on Fire cinematographer Claire Mathon. All of it is fascinating, certainly, but distant.
As an example of the withdrawn yet purposeful dalliances, there is a bookending focus and callback to a scarecrow. At one point early in the movie, Diana trudges through a muddy field to swap an old coat for one of her lavish signature outfits. The weathered jacket becomes a minor and odd totem she keeps and communicates with throughout her stay. Still, let that image of a beleaguered and ramshackle rural mannequin now cloaked with colorful finery standing in a field trying to scare away the wrong kinds of encircling visitors be your striking symbol of all symbols from Spencer.
The poignancy of Spencer has merit while aimless. Diana Spencer was brightest as a mother where that would be an optimistic and proper tribute over this maddening descent. Fleeting happiness is dangled for hopeful audiences, though we know the eventual fates. Through it all, there’s still the unconvincing Kristen Stewart. She just cannot transform into this icon. The historical figure deserved better, and she received that on an Emmy-winning Netflix show of all places, played by virtual unknowns, better than Spencer on the big screen lit by a star.