‘…Stewart nails Diana’s mannerisms, but making fantastical films about public figures isn’t easy, and Spencer doesn’t have the narrative smoke and mirrors required to charm or persuade….’

Is it possible to give a great performance in a junky, clunky film? On the evidence of Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, yes, because Kristen Stewart is simply terrific as the late Lady Diana Spencer, and yet the film is anything but. Diana’s friends have noted that she’d be horrified by the way Steven Knight’s script depicts her, and they’re not the only ones who’ll have doubts; this is a rather intrusive and speculative film about the People’s Princess. Stewart nails Diana’s mannerisms, but making fantasy films about well-loved public figures isn’t easy, and Spencer doesn’t have the narrative smoke and mirrors required to charm or persuade.

After getting lost on her way from an event at a Kensington book-shop, Diana rocks up late to Sandringham for a royal family Christmas Eve gathering; she balks at the Queen’s tradition of having each guest weigh themselves on a giant set of scales before the festivities begin. Diana is pictured happy to be re-united with children William and Harry, but less appreciative of the frosty welcome she gets from estranged husband Charles (Jack Farthing). Keen to explore her desolate childhood home nearby, Diana zones in and out of reality, hallucinating that the pearls she wears are getting crunched in her soup, or conversing with the ghost of Anne Boleyn as she stalks the corridors. Diana yearns to break out of royal protocols, and take her kids out for a fast food meal, but the stifling environment, and her own eating disorder, stand in the way of her contentment…

The director’s Jackie bio with Natalie Portman had more success in suggesting the private mania that goes on behind public life, but Spencer runs into problems from the get-go, leaving aside the out-of-focus photography and screeching free-form jazz soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. By focusing exclusively on Diana’s POV, all other characters are caricatured; the Queen likes corgis, tradition and having her face on bank-notes, and that’s about as much insight as we get. In order to set Diana in conflict with her family, like a sulky teenager, we see her disparage her own choice of public work (getting rid of landmines), encourage a lesbian crush from her dresser, and demand privacy from her staff so she can ‘masturbate’; whether this is true or not matters less than that it depicts a smart media-savvy figure as a helpless, hopeless, attention-seeking naif. The Diana depicted here even courts the attentions of a fearsome mob of press photographers, leaving curtains open so that their telephoto-lenses can capture her undressing. Anyone who remembers how the media literally drove Diana to her death will find such details deeply unpersuasive; in life, she seemed to be continually in conflict with men telling her what she could and couldn’t think and do, and that trend continues beyond the grave with this tawdry film.

Like being a child actor, being a royal is not something a young person can choose; if you marry into a royal family, you already know what you’re getting, a trade-off that offers continual intrusiveness vs the fame and power that come with the company. If all Diana craved was suburban normalcy, and that’s the argument here, she certainly went about it in a strange way, and the film never closes that gap between fact and fiction; much as it’s nice to hear Mike and The Mechanics’ upbeat anthem All I Need is a Miracle on the soundtrack, the ‘I’ve-just-remembered-my-real-name-and-who I -am’ ending featured here worked far better in Robocop. Stewart is a stick-on for awards recognition for a remarkable turn, but it’s the only thing that works here; the optics are terrible on Larrain and Knight mansplaining to us who they think Diana really was.

Thanks to STX Films for advance access, Spencer is out in the UK Friday November 5th 2021


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  1. I’m not into watching movies just to see a good performance. This sounds like it has some major issues. And The Crown may have told this story better, as others have commented. Good review.

    • I’m hearing from several sources that The Crown wore this better; cinema can put you in the head space of a character with real intensity, but some of the details here do not convince, which makes it more surprising that Stewart is good here. Some do seem to like this, but it’s narratively challenged, more like an experimental film…

  2. I don’t know if you’ve seen Pablo Larrain’s Chilean films Neruda and No, but he doesn’t make mainstream films. I didn’t think Jackie suffered from his working in a second language and I like Kristen Stewart. She was terrific in The Clouds of Sils Maria, showing she could handle European arthouse cinema.

    Spencer has been recommended to me, so l might seek it out. Did you notice the 1:1.66 ratio? The cinematographer is Claire Mathon who shot the last two Celine Sciamma films and the German producer is the director Karen Ade — a hefty European input. Throwing Steven Knight into the mix is a strange one. The film sounds intriguing.

    • I’d be keen to hear what you think of this. I’m a fan of Stewart, she’s made some really good films like Camp X Ray, and more than proved that she can dominate the screen and take a film by the scruff of the neck. I feel that Knight’s script is problematic here, it really seems some way from what might be expected; the conflict is hardly shown, but there’s lots of walking down corridors and ghostly figures. It feels like an arthouse take on Diana, and that isn’t how it’s being marketed, so I sense a backlash in the offing. And to be honest, I wasn’t mad about heh way its lensed; I guess they made a deliberate call to have some of it out of focus to reflect Diana’s POV, but it’s tricky to watch. I was really impressed by Jackie, and had high hopes for this, but it didn’t match my expectations. Hope you enjoy it more than I did.

  3. The idea of Kristen Stewart as Diana is intriguing enough to me that I will watch this despite your warning. I’m rarely satisfied with films made about recent public figures I’m very familiar with — I often feel like I’m watching a serious Saturday Night Live skit. But it’s bait I usually can’t resist swallowing, and I will give this one a shot.

    • It’s SNL but without the laughs. There’s a deep well of public feeling re Diana, and any half-decent film that tapped into it would be a huge hit. Despite Stewart’s heroic efforts, this really isn’t it. It’s a real cartoon, complete with ghosts, and one that simplifies Diana’s position to the point of idiocy. In this scenario, I think a woman’s touch with the writing or directing might have helped…

    • I think the legend is too powerful now to come up with anything new. From the trailers Stewart looks as if she has captured the Diana look and she is good enough an actor to give her soul, but the other actors in the melee look rather more humdrum and I was put off by the lousy trailer that had the director pontificating. I hate these trailers where director/actor basically tells what a brilliant film it is and go and see it on the big screen.

  4. I used to like Radiohead so much. Still love some of their albums. But the stuff they’re releasing now is shockingly bad, and the soundtrack work from Spectre (wisely rejected) and individually from Yorke and Greenwood has completely missed the mark. It’s like they just figure they can go out and “do their own thing.”

    Still haven’t made up my mind about Stewart. Might see it just for her. Didn’t care much for Diana, or any of the royals, so will probably be a hate watch.

    • Loved Radiohead back in the day, but the music here feels like self parody. And I’m a fan of Stewart, who is the sole reason to watch this. Royalist or not, Diana was someone who stood up for herself, and got crushed as a result, so there’s a wider story here if someone wanted to make a more serious film.

  5. I never bought into the cult of the princess, so that’ll be a definite pass from me.
    It does make me wonder if anyone sat down with Diana before she was married and explained to her what being a public figure meant. Where were her guardians?

    • But she WAS a public figure by choice, and really grew into it with some good advice from handlers; that sense of agency is missing here. I guess she figured that she could handle the trade-off, but who am I to say? The details presented here just seem simplistic and jarring…

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