A shockingly great performance as Princess Diana
The Crown, Meghan and Harry, all those Christmas movies about regular gals becoming princesses–you could be forgiven for feeling very over the royal family.
SPENCER ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Written by: Steven Knight
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Stella Gonet
Running time: 111 mins
But director Pablo Larrain’s Spencer is a different animal, a horror movie about a modern woman trapped amongst an ageless (vampiric?) ruling dynasty. And yes, it’s the most obvious kind of Oscar bait, but Kristen Stewart really nails the fictionalized Diana’s vulnerability and claustrophobia. Who among us wouldn’t melt down when confronted with this level of archaic bullshit?
On film, the aggressively introverted Stewart always exists in her own reality. She’s at her best when directors leave her to wander around solo, a la Personal Shopper. Even when she’s in a bomb, like the lame deep-sea thriller Underwater, she’s always ridiculously watchable. It’s also often a minefield when an American actress takes on a British role, but Stewart is impressively non-showy with her accent, enough so you’re not constantly aware that she’s Acting British.
Billed as a fable spun out of the true story, Spencer follows Diana through a Christmas weekend at the Queen’s country estate. It’s a moment when her marriage to Prince Charles is crumbling, the paparazzi is frenzied, and her eating disorder and anxiety are spiraling out of control. Immediately upon arriving, the bulimic princess learns she has to weigh in on a scale in the lobby. Just a “bit of fun,” they tell her, with family members required to gain three pounds over the weekend to show they’ve properly indulged. In case you didn’t realize this was a hostage situation, they’ve selected dresses for Di to wear over the weekend, tagging them P.O.W. (technically, Princess of Wales. It’s a good wink).
From there, it’s a mounting standoff between the Americanized, rebellious princess and the rest of the royals, none of whom really register except Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and the Queen (Stella Gonet). Unlike Josh O’Connor’s portrayal on The Crown, this Charles is a one-dimensional villain who needles his wife about her eating disorder, lectures her on public behavior and demands their sons learn to hunt even if they don’t want to. Upon learning people spotted her changing in her room with the curtains open, his family orders them sewn shut.
Stewart’s Diana responds first with passive aggression–she’s late to everything in a household that runs on military precision–and then with unraveling sanity, hallucinating conversations with kindred spirit Anne Boleyn. She’s not a heroine, exactly. She’s an aristocrat who pats herself on the back for liking such plebe indulgences as fast food. But her distress is entirely relatable, and the way Stewart always wears emotions on her face as if she truly can’t help it makes her the ideal choice, despite her non-Britishness.
If Larrain’s film suffers from anything, it’s being the gazillionth piece of entertainment about the monarchy. Do we need to see, again, the battalions of household servants, or the Queen’s tweedy haughtiness, or witness the tight-assed pomp of the white-tableclothed dinners and shooting parties?
Still, Sally Hawkins is great in Spencer, as always, as Diana’s dresser and confidante. And Timothy Spall, who’s made quite a career of being verminesque, quietly terrorizes Di as a staffer who they’ve assigned to keep her in line. The film’s most touching scene sees the princess stealing late-night time to hang out with her two young sons, who adore her even as their regimental roles are subsuming them. But you mostly can’t look away from Stewart, or help yourself rooting for Di to live happily ever after. Personally, I hope Oscar takes the bait.