‘Spencer’ review: manic pixie dream princess



Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer.”

Diana Spencer, or “the people’s princess,” is without question one of history’s most beloved leading ladies. From “The Crown” to “Diana: The Musical” and a baker’s dozen of documentaries and tell-alls in between, the Princess of Wales is no stranger to Hollywood’s gaze. The latest film to tackle Diana’s tragic and iconic legacy is Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” a chamber drama that follows Diana’s increasingly tenuous weekend with the British royal family over Christmas. Though Larraín has found previous success in telling the stories of tragic historical women (particularly with 2016’s “Jackie”), “Spencermisses the mark — a heavy-handed, uninspired look at Princess Diana’s life that’s anchored around a performance by Kristen Stewart that’s so insipid, it borders dangerously on parody.

By staging “Spencer” as a tense, character-driven drama that serves as a quiet slice of life — as opposed to more sweeping look at Diana’s tumultuous time as a member of the royal family — the film puts nearly all of its eggs in the Kristen Stewart basket, relying on her force as an actress to transform Steven Knight’s script into the thoughts, words and feelings of the beloved Lady Spencer. It’s clear that Larraín had total faith in Stewart’s performance and felt more than comfortable letting the weight of the film rest on her shoulders, but in putting so much faith in Stewart, Larraín makes it incredibly difficult to look past the flaws in her performance.

As the Princess of Wales, Kristen Stewart (best known for her leading turn as Bella Swan in the “Twilight” franchise) hits all the hallmarks of what we conventionally understand to be Princess Diana: She’s demure, unsophisticated and kindhearted, while simultaneously refusing to cave to the demands and traditions of the royal family and the institution they represent. However, there’s an unshakable element of insincerity in Stewart’s performance — though the hair and makeup design is top notch, Stewart never quite disappears into the role, and it feels very much as if we’re watching Stewart and Larraín’s idea of how Diana acted as opposed to Diana herself coming alive on the screen.

In the same vein, the entire film takes this approach for virtually every element of Diana’s life — from her clothes to her inner turmoil to her iconic quotes, Larraín’s vision of Diana plays out less as an intimate, revelatory look at her innermost thoughts and feelings in a time of great strife, and instead makes certain to hit every mark and signifier that made Diana so famous and so beloved. Her gentle speaking voice and introverted body language, hallmarks of her public persona, are laid on so thick at certain points it almost feels like a “Saturday Night Live” take on Diana.

Is it true to who Diana was? Sure — all the staples of Lady Spencer are here, and everything from Kristen Stewart’s imitation of her lilting voice to the specificity of the costumes feels clinically designed to replicate Diana and garner critical acclaim. But for all the time that the film spends showing us just how well it’s able to recreate Diana, Larraín doesn’t seem interested in exploring anything particularly compelling about who she was, or taking a fresh set of eyes to a now well-known story.

Other than beating a comparison to Anne Boleyn into the ground, “Spencer” feels as if it has nothing to say about its subject, nor does it attempt to recontextualize or think critically about her life and tragic death in a new light. She remains the people’s champion — the delicate English rose — while the royal family are practically twirling their moustaches as the looming villainous presence in her life. Are the royals deserving of such a portrayal? Certainly — but it’s not news that the royal family treated her poorly, and rehashing what most audiences likely already know about her poor treatment doesn’t make for a very compelling film.

Narratively, “Spencer” is small in scope yet aimless. Though we’re apparently watching Diana slowly come to the decision that she’s going to leave Charles, most of the film spends its time following Diana as she picks out what to wear, vomits up her meals and chases after dreamlike spectres of the aforementioned Anne Boleyn. The film at times shimmers with promise when it frames her story in contrast to the staff of Sandringham House, including chef Darren (Sean Harris), page Allistair (Timothy Spall) and dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkens), but those moments aren’t substantial enough to create any semblance of a compelling narrative.

Though Claire Mathon’s breathtaking cinematography paints the entire film in soft hues reminiscent of an impressionist portrait, the beauty of “Spencer” remains frustratingly skin deep — echoing how little it explores the woman at its center. Unfortunately for Larraín, though, beautiful visuals does not a good film make, and “Spencer” is little more than a cliche-ridden examination of a beloved public figure predicated on a valiant but misguided performance from Stewart.