Spencer

Spencer, 2021, 3 ½ stars

Castles in the air

Larraín paints a fantastical Diana

Kristen Stewart stars as Princess Diana (née Spencer). (image copyright Neon)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, November 14, 2021

There’s an old adage that says, while a director can certainly make a bad film from a good script, he can’t make a good film from a bad script.

At first glance, it would appear that Chilean director Pablo Larraín has defied that theory for his second biopic in a row. A closer examination reveals, however, that the screenplays for both the new Spencer (Steven Knight) and 2016’s Jackie (Noah Oppenheim) are perfectly competent. It’s just the basic stories that are seemingly underwhelming.

Nevertheless, with Jackie (starring Natalie Portman), Larraín showed a remarkable ability to conjure cinematic magic from an overdone and simple story, turning the tale of Jacqueline Kennedy’s reaction to her husband’s assassination into the best film of the year. Spencer, “a fable from a true tragedy,” is no Jackie, but thanks to nuanced direction, splendid cinematography and production design, and a standout performance from Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, Larraín has again upended the biopic genre, much like Diana did the British royal family. And in doing so, he turns three (imagined) days in the life of Diana – over the 1991 Christmas holiday – into an intriguing and visually sumptuous fantasy.

Ironically, Larraín has expressed a disinterest in biopics. In addition, prior to directing Jackie, he proclaimed a disinterest in the Kennedys. He hasn’t expressed a similar disinterest in the British royal family, but he did tell Cinema Daily that, when young, he didn’t feel a connection with Diana, which lends credence to the theory that artists are at their best when slightly removed from their subject.

Despite Larraín’s accomplishments, it’s Stewart who is getting the attention. In a performance that is more channeling than impersonation or acting, she is luminous – in a way she has never been before and might never be again. This is due partly to Larraín’s direction, partly to hair and makeup, partly to subtle mimicry but maybe mostly to the fact that, like Diana, Stewart has often been misjudged, unconventional and oddly aloof. Her performance also seems distant, even cold, befitting the beautiful but poorly heated rooms of central England’s Sandringham House, where most of the action is set. (German’s Nordkirchen Castle doubles as Sandringham.) In fact, the entire production is chilly, almost ghostly, with emotional arcs never fully realized and Stewart relying more on whispers than shouts, more hallucinations than actions, to convey her character’s crescendo into madness.

Lending wonderful support are Sally Hawkins as Diana’s dresser and confidante, Sean Harris as head chef Darren McGrady and Timothy Spall as the man running Sandringham. His character is apparently based on real-life royal Master of the Household David Walker, but it’s a fictional character who comes to my mind when watching Spall: Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard. For the mottled, chiseled Spall has slowly become the physical embodiment of Desmond’s famous proclamation that, in silent films, “we didn’t need dialogue; we had faces.”

Turns out, we also need costumes, so expect the eighth Oscar nomination for Jacqueline Durran. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time costumes figured so prominently in a film. For in Spencer, Durran’s designs aren’t just dressing, or even art. They are the story. Edith Head would be proud.

But it’s impossible to know whether Diana would be proud. Probably not. The same goes for the other royals – some of whom are treated with disregard at best, and disrespect at worst. Still, Larraín’s fable cements the notion that Diana, for good or bad, simply wasn’t meant for the Windsor fish bowl and – like Greta Garbo (who refused the part of the aforementioned Norma Desmond) – simply wanted to be left alone.

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