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Spencer Review: Kristin Stewart’s Princess Di movie is a chilled ghost story

Spencer Review: Kristin Stewart’s Princess Di movie is a chilled ghost story

This review by Spencer comes from the film’s screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021. Stay tuned for more information when the film comes out in November 2021.

Princess Diana biopic Spencer is not your prototypical biographical film. Again, the film’s director, Chilean author Pablo Larraín, is also not known for making well-known biopics. His depictions of Jackie Kennedy’s life after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Jackie, and the poet Pablo Neruda on the run from the new Chilean president Gabriel González Videla in Neruda, are raw, inflexible films that focus close to a particular moment in the lives of their subjects.

Likewise with Spencer, Larraín does not give the expected story of Princess Diana. There is no courtship or adventurous wedding, à la Kronen. It does not map her life from being a newborn destiny to greater heights. Nor does it list her as a predictably convicted victim. Instead, Spencer takes place over a Christmas weekend in 1991 at the Queen’s Sandringham estate. Diana (Kristen Stewart) is still in a full-fledged marriage to Prince Charles (a cold Jack Farthing), or at least in part. During her stay, Diana struggles with her role as the mother of her two sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), and faces her eating disorder, her family history, and the dominant men who write her daily life.

Opening with a title card that reads “A fable from a true story”, Larraín’s film is not based on a completely true event. Nor will it tell Diana’s life story. Spencer is an act of psychological horror, a kind of ghost story and a survival picture carried by an eerily immersive Kristen Stewart, in the best performance of her career.

Stephen Knight’s script does not turn viewers upside down with the media-constructed people’s princess mythos. Knight and Larraín are too smart to use such light tools. Instead, they find more subtle ways to weave his legend into a realistic narrative. Spencer opens with Diana, without a driver or bodyguard driving herself to Sandringham House. The confident royal loses his way and eventually decides to stop to ask for directions. In front of normal people, she assumes a shy, slightly vulnerable attitude. Her eyes swing to the sky while her head tilts to the side. The scene is the first contour in Stewart’s layered depiction of her: the differences between the private princess and the public turned.

This is a cinema that acutely deals with analyzing Diana’s psychology and specifically her many demons. But not in a saleful way. While on her way to the Sandringham Estate, she sees a scarecrow standing in the middle of a field, wearing her father’s red coat. (In fact, her father, John Spencer, died three months after that Christmas of a heart attack.) She goes and picks up the outerwear in hopes of getting it cleaned. Diana grew up on the Queen’s estate in Park House, making her trip to the Christmas parties both an encouraging homecoming and an unfortunate duty, which caused a source of grief to affect her in various forms.

Diana also connects with her ancestry in the film. Equerry Major Gregory (a beatable Timothy Spall), a crazy Scottish war veteran who is now anesthetizing the Queen, is harassing Diana for following the tradition. A “game” has visitors to weigh themselves at the beginning of arrival to see who gets the most weight during the holidays. This tradition causes Diana’s insecurity with its weight to bubble to the surface. And after finding a book about Anne Boleyn on her bed, possibly placed there by Major Gregory, she dreams of the distant relative, Henry VIII’s second wife, who was beheaded after he mistakenly accused her of infidelity. Between the fur and Anne Boleyn’s spirit, Diana is drawn to her now condemned childhood home.

Who can blame Diana for feeling locked in? Aside from her tailor and best friend Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and the estate’s likeable chef Darren (Sean Harris), she’s largely isolated. But once again, Larraín is too smart to limit Spencer to hone Diana’s relationship with the other royals around her or even her relationship with Charles and his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles. Instead, he draws focus by depicting how Diana tries to protect her sons from the archaic, closed traditions of the royals. But in the face of dominant men like Charles and Major Gregory along with the estate’s inflexible protocol and her eating disorder, she can barely protect herself. The mania she feels makes her Christmas vacation more of a struggle for survival than an escape.

Jonny Greenwood’s score opens as classic British and then transforms into a nervous symphony. Following a similar aesthetic to Jackie, film photographer Claire Mathon (Atlantic, Portrait of a lady on fire) captures Diana with intrusive close-ups, her lens looking over the princess’ heartbreaking facial expression. Mathon is also interested in the disturbingly well-kept features of the estate: the uniform garden, the demanding movements of the austere servants, and the carefully prepared food and clothing that contrast with Diana’s free fall. Meanwhile, the costume work of the legendary Jacqueline Durran covers the biggest hits of Diana’s most famous outfits with an evocative selection of fashion that often speaks to her mental state.

Photo: NEON

But Stewart’s absolutely outstanding performance is what brings together Diana’s lore and Larraín’s perception of her, creating an invented version of the princess that does not rely on broad or flashy instincts. Stewart folds his body to actualize Diana’s nervousness, tilts his head in a familiar way, and makes the princess’ voice sound perfect. But beyond that, her performance comes down to the eyes. Stewart’s eyes swing like switchblades through the grass. And each look claims a different victim, showing either a form of deceit or shyness, depending on the situation. It is her eyes that skip her over the performance of a totally built-in aura. There’s never a moment where it’s Kristen Stewart as Diana. She’s Diana.

The film has two climaxes, and one comes when Diana finally returns to her childhood home. She’s crazy and hallucinating, and Mathon’s camera closes even more dangerously into her. It is here Jackie editor Sebastián Sepúlveda shines and delivers a vivid and haunting montage of her life up to the moment. The second climax turns the film’s tenor from ugly to festive. Given the gloom of the film, and how deep in despair it sinks in, the rapid shooting towards festivities should feel dull, almost as if Larraín is cheating on the story. But it works because the director knows that the audience has an inherent desire for Diana to have a happy ending.

In that sense, Larraín Spencer, an inspired portrait of the princess’ life, who is more concerned with finding new truths in her public and private persona than following the familiar beats of her life, is not what the classic biopic audience is used to seeing. But it’s the inventive, iconoclastic film that Diana deserves.

Spencer arrives at US theaters on November 5, 2021.

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