I had a feeling I was in trouble when Pablo Larraín’s latest film stated its aims: “A fable from a true tragedy.” Larraín was clearly dead set on outdoing himself, and in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be enjoyable, although I got the notion that Rotten Tomatoes would prove I was to be in the minority.
As of this review, that’s now the case. It’s not difficult to discern why Larraín’s film has been enjoyable to so many. A few years back, he imagined the inner life of Jackie Kennedy to astounding effect, and “Spencer” is another attempt at a biopic of an iconic woman who’s been widely analyzed and portrayed (or as some might claim, dissected to death) by zooming in on a compressed but critical time in her life.
There may not be the outright violence there was in “Jackie,” which took place during Kennedy’s assassination, but death still looms large as Larraín imagines just what went down when down when Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) headed out to the royal family’s lavish country estate for Christmas festivities. And this time Larraín has “Atlantics” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” cinematographer Claire Mathon, as well as “Phantom Thread” and “Inherent Vice” composer Jonny Greenwood, who scores a perfect blend of psychological horror and jazz-infused prestige to bait the Oscars just right.
What does actually occur exposes not just the fatal flaw in Stewart’s performance, but her acting style in general. Stewart made the “Twilight” franchise her own the same way her career found new life in the indie scene – by exuding vulnerability. It’s how she earned audience sympathy and critical praise without demonstrating great range, by proving consistently reliable in making all conflict, both supernaturally related and otherwise, feel epic. It’s also why her presence in action movies has been sporadic in a time when superhero films dominate the box office. Fragility and superheroes do not mesh well.
So her role in “Spencer,” which on the surface is practically tailor-made for Stewart, is a surprisingly tough gig, since she’s naturally called upon to embody Diana’s brand of vulnerability rather than her own. Stewart is clearly all in though, so what is grating at first becomes watchable once you settle in and get used to the fact that Stewart is clearly an American in a very British setting, with the supporting talent to match in the likes of Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins.
Larraín clearly trusts Stewart to pull it off, pulling in for his trademark closeups and providing the kind of lighting any actor would die for, emphasizing Stewart’s beauty to reliably unearthly effect, complete with montages full of twirling and dreams of happier days. Who Larraín clearly suspects is the audience, since he can’t seem to bring himself to let his metaphors speak for themselves. He must have developed a very robust disdain, given how staggeringly obvious they are in the first place.
Just how far does he take them? After giving his actors some truly cringey dialogue that includes Stewart herself asking of her family, “Will they kill me do you think?,” Larraín throws in a (fictional) book that’s actually entitled “Anne Boleyn: Life and Death of a Martyr.” He also has Stewart hallucinate Anne Boleyn herself to the point that he dresses her up in her distantly related ancestor’s period clothing, which is especially rich seeing as it’s quite doubtful Diana and Anne would have gotten along.
To paraphrase the old euphemism, it’s hard to see Diana even wanting to grab a beer with the dark-haired Boleyn, a calculating, unapologetically ambitious woman, but the princess and the other Boleyn sister Mary probably would’ve gotten along famously. By all accounts also a passionate, vivacious blonde who likewise garnered a reputation for promiscuity in her lifetime, Mary also seemed to yearn for love and freedom, even daring to break free of her family to pursue a match they all scorned. And she suffered the consequences for it, even if it was ironically less fatal for her.
But death cleanses a woman of many sins, even the sexual kind, and so Anne, who was, as “Wolf Hall” author Hilary Mantel said through Mary’s own mouth, “a notorious virgin” who was legally and socially transformed into a slut at husband’s whim, becomes purified into a martyr. It’s deeply emblematic of how Larraín and writer Steven Knight insist on viewing both women, treating them with a simplicity that’s beneath everyone.
It certainly wasn’t the case for Jackie Kennedy, whom Larraín gifted with a vibrant inner life that went far beyond her husband and her role as First Lady. But neither Diana or Anne become more than the cage they never were able to break free from. In a classic case of bringing down those women who shine brightly on the public stage, Diana just wants to be normal, eat KFC, and isn’t ever allowed to have any ambitions besides being a good mother to her two children, on whose behalf she finally makes her rebellious stand.
Yet even casual research will show Diana was far more complicated than the passive, masochistic martyr she’s often remembered as, and she often used the glare of her spotlight to great effect, breaking down many of the stigmas regarding AIDS and sickness in general. But rather than celebrate her and her life, Larraín can only seem to memorialize her as a fragile victim, filling his film with constant references to death, as if anyone could forget the horrific circumstances of Diana’s end.
What this woman likely needed was an unscheduled Aubrey Hepburn-esque Roman Holiday, hopefully with her own Gregory Peck type. Alas, Diana lived in the real world, one where escaping the tabloids was a far more difficult task, and sexism literally paid off, covering many a reporter’s rent. I haven’t watched much of “The Crown,” especially THAT SEASON, but it seems like a safe bet that Diana’s story is done far more justice, and not just due to lack of time restraints. When the only emotion you can feel for a public figure is pity, it serves no one.