Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is not a typical biopic of Princess Diana. This is not a movie that starts at Diana’s childhood and ends at her death, showing the highs and lows of her life. This film doesn’t care about that. The opening title card of the film reads “A fable from a true story” letting us know that this isn’t a film based on a true event but isn’t fully made up either. Spencer looks at Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, during a Christmas weekend at Buckingham Palace where she struggles to confront her husband’s affair while also attempting to be a great mother to her children. Diana constantly feels the pressures of the royal family and her obligation as a princess while also trying to find who she really is.
When it was announced that Kristen Stewart was set to play Princess Diana in Larraín’s latest film, it immediately became one of the buzziest titles of the year because of the nature of the film, the filmmaker behind it, who just five years ago made a similar biopic, Jackie, which garnered critical praise and an Academy Award nomination for its star, Natalie Portman, who played former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and because of the casting of Kristen Stewart. Stewart has become one of the most interesting actors working today. Though many (dumb) people only think of Stewart as Bella Swan from the Twilight franchise, she has been putting in excellent work for the better part of a decade in films like Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, and Charlie’s Angels, and continuously takes on challenging and different roles with each movie.
But she had never taken a role like this one. Playing the role of Princess Diana is not only a huge role for Stewart to take, but for any actor to take. She would be embodying a cultural icon with an incredibly tragic story. She would be playing a divisive figure who was constantly in the spotlight across the world. All eyes were on Diana and those who witnessed Diana when she was alive would have their eyes on the performance of Kristen Stewart.
Stewart’s performance as Diana is one I could not take my eyes off of and one that I have not stopped thinking about since I saw it. Not because it is a revelatory masterpiece of a performance, but because it is a very strange performance that I just can’t fully wrap my head around. There wasn’t a lot about this performance that felt natural. Every line read by Stewart, every movement she made, her accent, her movements, the way she stares, it all felt very directed and very forced. It’s somewhat off-putting at the beginning of the film, but you become accustomed to it as the movie goes on.
But there is one scene that made this entire performance confusing for me. Following a late-night stroll by herself, Diana goes into the room of her children, William and Harry, and wakes them up. She gives them each an early Christmas gift and asks if they want to play a game. The boys happily agree and they end up playing some role-playing game around candlelight. Stewart is marvelous in this scene. Everything felt so natural and real and authentic. This scene showed me a woman who loves her children dearly and will do anything to make them happy and is happiest when she doesn’t have to deal with any of the pressures from the Royal Family or the turmoil of her marriage.
So where I am stuck with this performance is that I don’t know if Stewart’s performance the rest of the film, the forced moments I spoke of when she isn’t with her kids and is battling the angst and anxiety of her fame and who she is, is actually supposed to feel fake and forced because that is the performance Diana puts on for the Royal Family, the paparazzi, and everyone else except her kids. Diana is always trying to save face when around the Royal Family and around the paparazzi, pretending that everything is okay and that her life is perfect. But Spencer shows Diana at the end of her rope. A woman who cannot stand who she’s become and the things she has to deal with. She is forcing herself to continue to live this lifestyle and live with these people, despite her hating it. So is Stewart’s forced, unnatural performance a representation of Diana and her forcing herself to act like everything is normal when it isn’t, or is it Stewart just this unnatural for the part despite being incredibly talented? I haven’t figured it out yet and don’t know if I will.
With the film riding on the shoulders of Kristen Stewart’s performance and the fact that I can’t figure out if this performance is brilliant or bizarre, I don’t know what to truly make of the film. The film is stunning, with awards-worthy sets, costumes, and cinematography, and one of the best scores of the year by Johnny Greenwood. Stewart’s performance is something to behold and I recommend seeing Spencer because it features one of the most exciting actors working today fully embodying a character and giving a daring and interesting performance in a fascinating film from the great Pablo Larraín.
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