‘Spencer’ Review: Prisoner of the House of Windsor
Kristen Stewart stars as an anguished, rebellious Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s answer to “The Crown.”
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‘Spencer’ | Anatomy of a Scene
The director pablo larraín narrates a sequence from his film featuring kristen stewart..
“Hello, my name is Pablo Larraín and I am the director of Spencer. This scene is very important in the movie and it’s in the first third of the film. And we see Diana walking into a dinner where all the royal family is there. Diana, of course, is played by Kristen Stewart. And it’s the very first scene where we start to see what she sees and feel what she’s feeling. And how do we do that? That was the question. How do we invite the audience to her point of view of the situation? And some of the things aren’t really happening and they are just happening in her imagination, in her perception, in her own fantasy of the reality. And that reality somehow interfere with a conflict that have already happened to her with the family. So we are really seeing the consequences of that conflict. The main consequence is her mental distress and how she could eventually start seeing things that aren’t really there. We did a lot of shots. It’s one of the scenes of this film that has more coverage, like pretty much everyone there got a single shot and then we cover it from different angles. Because I thought that we needed that material for later in the editing room, we could find the right rhythm in order to cut it properly. So it’s really a scene that have a very precise ascension where we started with a slow kind of like minimalistic rhythm. And then as it goes by, it creates more and more intensity up to the point that it’s almost unbearable. And I wanted to hit that limit, I wanted to go as far as we could in terms of intensity, volume. And obviously, Jonny Greenwood’s music is very relevant for the operation of the scene. I also felt that it was important for Kristen to feel the pressure of the family. So what I did, is that I asked Kristen to stay away from the set up until everything was very ready, and she never walked in and never saw them up until we shot that arrival. And she has this necklace that we know that Charles gave that necklace to Camilla Parker Bowles. And the audience knows that that necklace is not just a necklace, it’s the representation of a broken marriage, a representation of a very painful gift. So we discussed this with Jonny Greenwood, our composer, in terms of how this should be played. And I remember asking him to create something that could have a progression from something, from music that could be played in that context, that is music that is sort of designed to disappear, just to be in the background, and then eventually becomes very relevant and very intense and helps you define what she’s going through.” [CLATTERING] “So it’s a very beautiful and strange work, because the composition evolves into a state of panic. That was very important for the process of making the scene and for the result of the scene.” [MUSIC INTENSIFIES] “And we feel for her, we feel with her, and I think Kristen does an incredible work to sort of handle the physicality, the emotions. It’s a scene with no dialogue, it’s just music and sort of the cinematic progression and the dramatic progression and the interaction between her, the Queen, Anne Boleyn, and of course, Charles.”
By A.O. Scott
“Spencer” is a Christmas movie, in which a big, dysfunctional family gathers at the holiday to feast, exchange gifts and engage in peculiar traditions meant to provide “a bit of fun.”
“Spencer” is a horror movie about a fragile woman held captive in a spooky mansion, tormented by sadistic monsters and their treacherous minions.
“Spencer” is a psychological thriller about a powerful, unaccountable authoritarian cabal conspiring to crush the spirit of an independent-minded rebel.
“Spencer” is a love story, a melodrama of maternal devotion, an early-’90s fashion parade and a very British baking show. (The scones and pastries are organic.)
“Spencer,” described by its director, Pablo Larraín, as “a fable from a true tragedy,” is all of the above, and also a fact-inspired drama about Diana, Princess of Wales, played with grit and grace by Kristen Stewart . Diana, who died in a car crash in 1997 — and whose maiden name gives Larraín’s film its title — is hardly an obscure figure. A global celebrity and tabloid fixture in her lifetime, she remains somehow irresistible.
Her troubled marriage to Prince Charles and her vexed relations with her royal in-laws have been subject to scrutiny from every angle, most recently in “The Crown,” where she was played in the last season by Emma Corrin. (In the next one, Elizabeth Debicki will take up the role.) A superficial reading of “Spencer,” which takes place over three days (from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day) in 1991, might see it as a sidebar to “The Crown,” lingering over a minor episode in a vast epic and isolating a single, relatively minor character amid the pomp and pageantry of palace life.
That is exactly wrong. Larraín and the screenwriter, Steven Knight, offer not a footnote but an ardent and unsparing rebuke to the mythical monarchist mumbo-jumbo that the Netflix series (to which I am entirely addicted) exists to promote. The conceit of “The Crown” is that, for all their flaws, defeats and compromises — or because of all that — the members of the House of Windsor are fundamentally more interesting than anybody else. Their dilemmas are more exquisite, their choices more tragic, than anything the commoners can know.
This is a persistent conceit in the literature of power, one that Larraín, wielding his camera like a rapier and Jonny Greenwood’s lacerating score like a stiletto, leaves in tatters. The only members of the royal family whose voices are heard in “Spencer” are Charles (Jack Farthing) and his mother (Stella Gonet). Queen Elizabeth is as bland and cold as a dish of old porridge. Her eldest son, at least with Diana, is callous and cruel, mocking her eating disorder and lecturing her on the necessity of keeping up appearances.
“There have to be two of you,” he says — one for “the people” and one in private. (Like much of Knight’s script, these lines explain things a little too bluntly.) But one of the reasons Diana was called “the people’s princess” was that she seemed always and authentically herself, an idea that Larraín, Knight and Stewart implicitly endorse. She’s devoted to “what’s real,” and describes her tastes and interests, in a flawless aristocratic accent, as “middle class.” Fast food. Musical theater. Driving her European sports car instead of being chauffeured in a Rolls-Royce .
She wants to be herself, and she wants to be free. Larraín, who is Chilean, has made a handful of tough , unsettling films about life in his country under a military dictatorship determined to control the thought and behavior of its subjects. While “Spencer” hardly equates Queen Elizabeth with Pinochet, the power that the crown exerts over Diana can accurately be described as totalitarian.
Preparations for Christmas at Sandringham House — a moated mansion near the Norfolk coast — have the character of a military operation. Groceries are delivered by armed soldiers, and the chief of the kitchen “brigade” (Sean Harris) is like a field commander. (He’s also one of the few people in the castle who treats Diana with kindness.) Everything is scheduled down to the minute: sandwiches, meals, hunting parties. Diana is instructed on which outfit she must wear for each activity.
The dresses are tagged “P.O.W.” It stands for “Princess of Wales,” of course. Still, Diana, in the midst of marital combat with Charles (who is having an affair with a briefly glimpsed, never named Camilla Parker-Bowles), is very much a prisoner. She glides through empty corridors and chambers under constant surveillance. Her every notion, whim and word is observed and reported. She is entirely alone, with no real privacy or solitude. Her only comfort is the company of her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry).
“Spencer” is, finally, a study in the psychological effects of captivity. Diana, fragile when she arrives at Sandringham — and the subject of much “concern” from the Windsors, spirals toward a breakdown over the next 72 hours. She hallucinates the ghost of Anne Boleyn, pierces the skin on her arm with a wire-cutter and acts out in ways that alarm her children and disgust the prince.
Watching over her with sympathy — though not necessarily on her side — are two members of the royal staff. Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) tries to reason her into compliance, at one point telling a hair-raising story about his military service that is apparently meant to emphasize the importance of duty. Diana’s favorite dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), is a more steadfast ally, a sympathetic ear and then something more.
“Spencer” is a companion piece to “Jackie,” Larraín’s 2016 film about Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Both movies examine the isolation and paranoia of a woman at the mercy of political forces and family interests beyond her control, and turn on the heroine’s attempt at resistance. “Spencer” seems to me the more coherent film, partly because the directness of Stewart’s performance stands out so poignantly against the moral vacuity and aesthetic constipation of her surroundings.
Stewart leverages her own star power to turn Diana into someone familiar. The intimacy and care the character craves is something the audience feels compelled to supply. Our sympathy is more than pity, and “Spencer” is more than the portrait of a woman in distress. If it’s a fable, it’s a political fable, an allegory of powerlessness, revolt and liberation.
Spencer Rated R. Not a fairy tale. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. In theaters.
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the character played by Sally Hawkins in "Spencer." She is Maggie, not Mary.
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A.O. Scott is a co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” More about A.O. Scott
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Pablo Larraín ’s “Spencer” is a haunting reimagining of a tense Christmas holiday in the life of Princess Diana. Knowing this will not fully prepare you for what you’re about to watch. Larraín’s vision is full of dream sequences, internal and externalized pain, metaphor-heavy dialogue, and Kristen Stewart brooding sensationally under various hats and Diana’s signature short bob haircut. The movie aims to place the audience in its heroine’s state of mind as much as it wants to capture the sense of time of the early '90s and that point in the royal relationship when things begin to disintegrate.
Written by Steven Knight , “Spencer” greets its audience with a word: “A fable from a true tragedy,” setting the tone that what we’re about to see is more fiction than fact. Princess Diana (Stewart) is late to the beginning of holiday festivities. She gets lost in the area where she grew up as neighbors to the royal family, a symbol of how she’s lost parts of herself over the years trying to live up to expectations. Once on royal grounds, she’s greeted by a stern-faced former military officer ( Timothy Spall ), who’s the eyes and ears of the family. There’s nothing she can do without his knowledge. Now reunited with her boys William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), Diana tries to put on a brave face even if she knows her husband Prince Charles ( Jack Farthing ) is having an affair. Her anxiety and depression start to get the better of her. She begins to see the ghost of Anne Boleyn ( Amy Manson ), the one-time wife of Henry the VIII who was beheaded so her husband could marry his mistress, as an omen for what will be done to her. Diana finds an ally among her staff in Maggie ( Sally Hawkins ), but even she is pulled away just when Diana needs her the most. Robbed of her privacy outside and inside the opulent estate, the walls feel as if they were closing in on Diana as she loses her grip on reality until she can break out and save herself.
As of late, Larraín seems fascinated by women held captive by societal cages and how they find an escape route. There was Natalie Portman ’s tear and bloodstained performance as the First Lady in “ Jackie ” back in 2016. Then, most recently, his sexually-charged drama “ Ema ” found a street dancer breaking with convention, polite society and her choreographer turned controlling romantic partner. “Spencer” shares a lot with “Jackie,” namely the stifling demands made on famous women in designer clothes and grand homes. They may appear to the outside world as having it all, but the reality is much sadder: their cages are gilded, but still a cage.
The latest addition to that cage is Kristen Stewart as a moody Diana, a performance that will likely be divisive among the princess’ defenders. The accent feels hit or miss, as do some of her actions. At times, it seems as if the movie reduces her to a childish state, throwing a fit after being denied her choices to do much else. Knight’s dialogue may be at times blunt and surface-level, and too often doesn’t give Stewart enough much room for nuance. Much of her performance can be described as a doomed brooding or a royal “ Melancholia ,” unable to pull herself out of that state until she finds a way out of the royals’ clutches.
Larraín’s vision isn’t a straightforward interpretation of the princess’s displeasure with traditions and holiday pageantry. There are sequences with Anne Boleyn that come across pretty heavy-handed, but perhaps the audience’s first hint that this is not your typical biopic is during the first dinner, when a displeased Diana is sickened by the pearls she’s forced to wear by her husband—a set of pearls she knows was also given to his mistress—so she snaps the necklace, sending the pearls all around her, including into her pea soup. Then she proceeds to eat one of the pearls, cracking them painfully with her teeth before the next shot of her running away in pain. Now, the imagined eating of the pearls can be interpreted a number of ways, but the pain of suffering through a dinner with her cheating husband across the table does physically affect her. The blending of her anguish, real and imagined, is intended to keep the audience uneasy and it succeeds.
In order to immerse the audience in Diana’s dissolving mental state, Larraín enlisted composer Jonny Greenwood to create the increasingly unnerving soundtrack, which includes everything from high-pitched strings to the clinking of glass chimes, to demonstrate Diana’s overwhelming experience. Cinematographer extraordinaire Claire Mathon (“ Portrait of a Lady on Fire ,” “ Atlantics ”) recreates a somewhat-faded look of photographs from the era, visually matching the scenery and costumes.
Near the end of the movie, a fashion flashback revisits Diana in earlier days of her youth, in some of her most famous outfits, like her wedding gown. This sequence happens after her having been denied going back to her childhood home. She goes anyway and looks at the ruins of her lost girlhood. It is a dizzying moment, created by Larraín and Mathon to look like a fashion shoot out of a cadre of outfits designed by Jacqueline Durran . Guy Hendrix Dyas ’ production design of the royal’s holiday home is the most literal interpretation of Larraín’s idea of a gilded cage. It is rich in detail and steeped in grandiosity. Yet when Diana and her boys complain it’s cold, no one dares turn the heat up to accommodate their requests. It’s just another metaphor in this decadent fairy tale inspired by the public’s ongoing fascination with a woman who never had much time in life to enjoy her days outside of her gilded cage.
This review was filed in conjunction with the Telluride Film Festival on September 5th. It is now exclusively in theaters.
Monica Castillo is a freelance writer and University of Southern California Annenberg graduate film critic fellow. Although she originally went to Boston University for biochemistry and molecular biology before landing in the sociology department, she went on to review films for The Boston Phoenix, WBUR, Dig Boston, The Boston Globe, and co-hosted the podcast “Cinema Fix.”
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Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana
Sean Harris as Chief Darren
Jack Farthing as Prince Charles
Sally Hawkins as Maggie
Timothy Spall as Major Gregory
Amy Manson as Anne Boleyn
- Pablo Larraín
- Steven Knight
- Claire Mathon
- Sebastián Sepúlveda
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Kristen Stewart disappears into her role as Diana, Princess of Wales, during a tense Christmas weekend in the early 1990s. Don't expect fireworks or theatrics — or much in the way of closure — but instead a subtle and effective character study.
Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | Oct 16, 2023
Heartened by a career-defining turn by Kristen Stewart, Spencer shows the ephemerality of grandeur, the rigidity of aristocracy, and the enduring humanity of Diana.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Aug 18, 2023
a thoroughly impressive, unforgettable character study that will surprise you and break your heart with the universality of its themes, and that you’ll find yourself revisiting time and time again.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Aug 8, 2023
Kristen Stewart’s CAREER DEFINING PERFORMANCE! Haunting, claustrophobic, intimate, personal, tragic, & all around one of the most unique experiences I’ve seen all year
Full Review | Jul 26, 2023
This recent addition to the Dianassance is a refresh and should be used as a map for future biopics.
Princess Di, it’s overstated, was like a beautiful bird trapped in a gilded cage – a pheasant, to be exact. Pheasants are shown adorning the tapestry above her bed, hunted for sport, and escaping shotgun blasts only to end up roadkill (!!!).
Full Review | Jul 25, 2023
Larrain exceeds expectations, as he experiments with surreal narrative elements and ultimately gives us a striking Diana story that we’ve never seen before.
Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Jul 25, 2023
Spencer is a horror movie with a twist. This film has the audience root for all of the aspects of horror movies they’re usually yelling at the characters to ignore.
Spencer is about generalizing queerness and about showing how LGBT people are not the only ones in closets. But it’s also careful not to push actual LGBT people back into that windowless room while appropriating their experiences.
Full Review | May 7, 2023
Spencer reaches levels of haunting piquancy and has a performance from Kristen Stewart the encompasses mind, body, and soul.
Full Review | Original Score: 5/5 | Oct 21, 2022
This unusual film might not be to everyone’s taste, but it was anything but dull.
Full Review | Sep 2, 2022
This is the most mature of Stewart's performances to date.
Full Review | Original Score: 5/5 | Aug 10, 2022
Without achieving perfection and with a haughty performance from Stewart, Larraín (Jackie) revolves around a woman in a story that opts to be an imaginary version, both dark and luminous... of what could've had happened. [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Original Score: 6/10 | Jul 1, 2022
The film’s intriguing tone, which involves metaphors so heavy-handed that [the writer] couldn’t possibly expect us to take them seriously, feels less like a biopic and more like a campy psychological horror movie. ... And Stewart plays it perfectly.
Full Review | Original Score: B+ | Jun 30, 2022
Stemming from a weak and disinteresting narrative, the voiceless director plays in the "think whatever you want" safe zone and banks too much in the ambiguity of his stories. Luckily, Kristen Stewart makes [it] bearable... [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Jun 27, 2022
An equally bold and sensitive — and enthralling — portrait of England's rose wilting not from the sunlight she craves, but from the royal inferno.
Full Review | Jun 25, 2022
An exquisite and haunting portrait of a fairy tale gone wrong.
Full Review | Jun 23, 2022
Without being exceptional, [Spencer] maintains a credible fateful tone that stirs uneasiness, and it's difficult to lose interest in that lost person and her unnerving desolation. [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Jun 22, 2022
A fable narrated from a true story perspective. [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | May 18, 2022
The dreamlinke sequences, childhood flashbacks or hallucinations, is what makes this film transcend. [Full review in Spanish]
Full Review | Original Score: 4.5/5 | May 13, 2022
Summary December, 1991: The Prince and Princess of Wales’ marriage has long since grown cold. Though rumoursof affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Christmas festivities at Sandringham Estate. There's eating and drinking, shooting and hunting. Diana knows the game. This year, things will be a whole lot different.
Directed By : Pablo Larraín
Written By : Steven Knight
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Spencer review – Kristen Stewart’s Diana impersonation is enjoyably strange
Pablo Larraín’s overwrought fantasy, set during a stifling royal Christmas in 1991, offers an arthouse-bizarro version of Diana’s story
W hat would have been Princess Diana’s 60th birthday came and went this summer, marked by a solemn new statue in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace in London, showing her with three generically grateful children; this statue effectively superseded the one of Diana with Dodi Fayed in Harrods department store, which was taken down in 2018 . But maybe that new bronze image will itself be superseded by the arthouse-bizarro Diana promoted in Spencer, an entertaining, if overwrought, overpraised and slightly obtuse movie, an ironised fantasy opera without music. It is about Diana having a “crack-up” over one stifling Windsor Christmas at Sandringham in 1991, with which screenwriter Steven Knight appears to have transcribed a dream he once had after eating his bodyweight in brie. The director is the Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, and it features an intrusive score by Jonny Greenwood, deafeningly cranking up the dysfunction.
Diana is cleverly impersonated by Kristen Stewart, who is particularly good at shoulder-shrugging convulsions of misery and protest – although this big-screen awards-season performance is not as good as Emma Corrin’s relaxed and sympathetic portrayal in TV’s The Crown. However, Stewart does get the biggest laugh of the year when Diana irritably dismisses a maid to be alone: “I want to masturbate …”
As in Larraín’s 2016 film, Jackie , about Jackie Kennedy’s trauma after the JFK assassination, this features quite a bit of Diana wandering stricken through corridors, although Jackie had just been showered in her dead husband’s blood. To approximate something like that motivation, this film conspicuously exaggerates Diana’s first-world problems with black-comic stylings, fictional flourishes and some beautiful images. The nightmarish absurdity of what Diana had to endure and her consequent unhappiness create something that looks as if it has been co-directed by former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and Dario Argento. The film maybe concedes a little drama-queen-of-hearts entitlement on Diana’s part, but of course we are supposed to be absolutely on her side, with flinch-making scenes of self-harm and bulimia.
Diana has showed up to Sandringham alone, casually driving herself in her open-topped sports car, committing an unpardonable error of taste in arriving after the Queen (Stella Gonet). She is already semi-estranged from Charles (Jack Farthing), who snaps meanly at her over one of the interminable meals, and Diana is, moreover, menaced by a fictional glowering flunkey, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall). But there are friendly faces about: her boys William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), with whom Stewart has a sweet scene, playing at soldiers on parade. The fictional cook Darren (Sean Harris) is her confidant and mate, and she has her devoted fictional dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins).
What is most intolerable for Diana is having to wear the clothes picked out for her, and again Knight gives Stewart some great lines. Holding up a gown, she says to her sour-faced maid: “It doesn’t fit.” – “Have you tried it on?” – “With my mood.” Driven mad by depression and by the Firm’s callous indifference and emotional stagnancy, Diana roams the grounds at night, to the horror of the local police, and tries breaking in to her nearby childhood home.
But the film ultimately implies that her problems are down to the ghastly Windsors: away from them, driving around in her car with the boys, listening to Mike and the Mechanics on the tape-deck and having an unpretentious KFC, she could relax and be herself, a Spencer . But you could argue that the Spencers were terribly grand and messed-up as well. Another type of film, without all the Halloween gothic naivety, might have challenged this view; it might have dramatised her relationship with her mother, say, or with the boys’ nanny, “Tiggy” Legge-Bourke. This an enjoyably strange spectacle, perhaps best appreciated by taking it less seriously than its creators intended.
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Review: Kristen Stewart’s ‘Spencer’ continues the Diana-ssance. But don’t call it a biopic
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“Spencer” unfolds over three chilly days at Sandringham, a sprawling manor in the Norfolk countryside. It begins on Christmas Eve, but the mood is far from celebratory. Heavy-duty vehicles roll along in grim procession, every tire just barely avoiding a pheasant lying dead in the road. (Consider it a mercy killing; the bird was reared for the upcoming Boxing Day hunt.) Armed soldiers march across the courtyard, bearing cargo in tightly sealed containers. Is it a cache of rifles? No, just fresh meat and vegetables for the feast, to be overseen by a battle-weary chef (Sean Harris) who urges his staff to work quietly: “They can hear you.”
“They,” of course, are the royal family, all of whom will arrive shortly, sans their most famous and famously troublesome member. In one of her latest breaches of protocol, Diana, Princess of Wales (a mesmerizing Kristen Stewart), has ditched her security detail and driven down from London herself, getting lost and distracted along the way. Arriving hours late for an event run with military precision, Diana comes tearing up the drive like a stray missile, an image reinforced by the bird’s-eye view of her convertible approaching the compound. Don’t call “Spencer” a biopic; in these moments, it’s closer to a war movie.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. It’s December 1991 and the death throes of Diana’s marriage have begun, though neither Chilean director Pablo Larraín nor British screenwriter Steven Knight have much use for strict facts or timelines. They trust that their audience knows the whole tortured saga well, perhaps from watching the countless shows and movies made about Diana’s life or closely following the headlines that hounded her to the grave and beyond. Now, 24 years after her death, we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown Diana-ssance, her legacy immortalized anew in Netflix programs like “The Crown” and (oof) “Diana: The Musical” and pointedly evoked amid the royal family’s latest public contretemps . Her place in the hearts of a monarchy-obsessed public feels more secure than ever.
All this might have made “Spencer” seem repetitive at best and exploitative at worst. Instead, it’s freed Larraín and Knight from any obligation to be comprehensive or definitive, much less adhere to the art-deadening conventions of the prestige Hollywood biopic. Why consign a heroine of Diana’s iconic stature and expressive power to one genre? The royal family’s travails have long been likened to those of a soap opera, but “Spencer,” even as it achieves the emotional extravagance of a first-rate melodrama, refuses to be hemmed in. It’s a historical fantasia, a claustrophobic thriller and a dark comedy of manners, all poised on a knife’s edge between tabloid trash and high art.
Most of all, it’s a portrait of a woman under siege. Increasingly depressed and isolated, Diana refuses to see her in-laws or wear the dresses (brilliantly designed by Jacqueline Durran) that have been set aside for each occasion. (Every garment bag bears the label “P.O.W.,” which can of course be read two ways.) From her perspective, it’s hardly a fair fight: She’s trapped in enemy territory and gravely outnumbered. But where the audience is concerned, she has an unshakable emotional advantage. This is, after all, Diana, the people’s princess, whose glamorous beauty and warm, irrepressible humanity have long dominated public sympathies and rebuked the frosty institution she married into. No less important, this is Kristen Stewart, reluctant Hollywood royalty incarnate, hurling herself into the kind of dazzling celebrity-as-celebrity star turn that reduces co-stars to commoners and sets Oscar prognosticators swooning.
I wouldn’t ordinarily mean that as a compliment. But Stewart has long confounded our notions of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and her brilliantly prismatic performance is both a natural extension of her image and a nervy departure from it. Her best earlier roles were wittily subversive riffs on her own mega-celebrity: Playing lowly assistants to the stars in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” Stewart electrified the camera’s gaze even as she seemed to deflect it. Her flinty naturalism took on a paradoxical radiance.
In “Spencer,” she achieves an equally remarkable alchemy through radically different means. Those means might look conventional on the surface: a blond wig, a British accent and an array of actorly mannerisms — hushed, breathy intonations, nervously darting eye movements — that are a little jarring on first encounter. But by the time Diana arrives at Sandringham, where she retreats to her chambers and shows little intention of emerging, the illusion has eerily seized hold.
What gives Stewart’s performance its specific resonance goes far beyond adroit technique; it’s the sense of a spiritual kinship, unarticulated but unmistakable, forged by an actor who knows a thing or two about the trappings of fame and the cruel churn of the gossip mill. Stewart doesn’t go easy on the character; she allows Diana her moments of spite and self-pity, and those who’ve always dismissed the princess as a self-willed victim or a scheming manipulator will not find their opinions entirely refuted. Even still, Stewart’s underlying compassion never wavers. Always good at projecting awkwardness and insecurity, she particularly comprehends Diana’s innate shyness, her squirming unease in these hostile surroundings.
Her discomfort is exacerbated at every turn by Larraín’s filmmaking, which often employs the feverish language of psychological horror — and more than a whisper of camp — to conjure a mood of relentless extremity. The camera, wielded by the great cinematographer Claire Mathon (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Atlantics”), chases Diana down corridors and stalks her around her chambers where she seethes and despairs. The music shudders with all the raw-nerves lyricism you’d expect from Jonny Greenwood (adding another remarkable score to an oeuvre that includes “There Will Be Blood” and “You Were Never Really Here”). Diana’s wardrobe becomes a gorgeous prison, from the string of pearls that repeatedly tightens around her neck to the stunning Chanel gown she wears as she retches into a toilet.
And amid the shadows of Sandringham (handsomely appointed by production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas), cinematic allusions spawn and multiply. Larraín devotees will naturally incline their thoughts toward his earlier curdled fairy tale, “Jackie,” which starred Natalie Portman as the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, and with which “Spencer” would make a fabulous transatlantic double bill. The affectionate moments Diana shares with her adoring sons, Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry), briefly take on spooky candlelit overtones of Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents.” Sandringham itself begins to echo the labyrinthine contours of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” and its hallways are no less replete with ghosts of the past.
The most visible specter is Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), whose own famous case of unhappily ever after holds up a grim if too-obvious mirror to Diana’s plight. It’s the script’s most ponderous motif and a reminder that Knight, as erratic as he is prolific, has a weakness for belaboring already blunt metaphors. He also has a fascination with dramas of confinement ( “Locke,” but also “Locked Down” ), and here he shrewdly boxes Diana in, temporally as well as spatially. The tighter its focus, the more intimate “Spencer” becomes.
In keeping with the movie’s intense subjectivity, other members of the royal family are barely seen; even Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and the queen (Stella Gonet) are granted just a few curt sniffs apiece. Diana, forever an outsider, has more meaningful interactions with her few allies on the palace staff, especially her favorite dresser, Maggie (the always wonderful Sally Hawkins), who urges her to stay strong and power through. More combative if not entirely unsympathetic is the equerry, Maj. Alistar Gregory (an excellent Timothy Spall), who keeps the proceedings on schedule and warns Diana about the prying eyes of the paparazzi huddled outside their windows. Ironically, the glaring spotlight of the media might actually be preferable to the royal family’s intolerable scrutiny.
And that scrutiny — so much attention, so little love — is what precipitates Diana’s fateful actions in “Spencer,” a movie in which not much seems to happen but in which decisive shifts are nonetheless taking place. To move forward with her life, the movie’s title suggests, Diana must look backward. Sandringham happens to be located not far from the estate where she grew up — boarded up now, but still a potent repository of memories, rooted in happier, more innocent times. Some of them come rushing back in “Spencer’s” most striking images: a lemon-yellow sailor suit, a little girl’s exuberant run, a tattered jacket gracing a long-forgotten scarecrow. It may be the movie’s most bittersweet allusion, an echo of another fairy tale that knows there’s no place like home.
Rating: R, for some language Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes Playing: Starts Nov. 5 in general release
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Justin Chang has been a film critic for the Los Angeles Times since 2016. He is the author of the book “FilmCraft: Editing” and serves as chair of the National Society of Film Critics and secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
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It’s earned Kristen Stewart an Oscar nod but is Spencer worth watching?
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Spencer ★★★ M, 116 minutes, available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
It’s been suggested before that a country stay with the royals is no day at the beach. In The Crown , Peter Morgan had Margaret Thatcher moaning with boredom throughout a Balmoral weekend of hunting, hiking and inhaling gusty draughts of cold air.
But these irritations can’t compare with the sufferings endured by Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) during a Sandringham Christmas in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer . Her marriage is coming apart and she’s consumed with sorrow and jealousy over her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, yet convention dictates that she put on a jolly good show.
Kristen Stewart at Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer. Credit: Pablo Larrain
“Thou shalt have fun” is the house’s governing commandment and it’s enforced with military precision. In the film’s opening scenes, a train of army vehicles comes rolling through the mist carrying the holiday provisions in locked metal trunks. Once these are in the kitchen, the head chef and his team unload the goodies, poised to conjure up the culinary flow essential to a Windsor Christmas.
Like jockeys before a race, every guest is subjected to a weighing-in ceremony. But the aim is to gain pounds rather than lose them, providing proof that fun has indeed been had.
The film can be seen as a companion piece to Jackie (2016), Pablo Larrain’s study of Jacqueline Kennedy’s anguished state of mind in the days following JFK’s assassination. Once again, he’s seeking to get inside the head of a famous woman undergoing a crisis. To that end, he’s calling Spencer a “fable” based on a “true tragedy”, which means that the imagination has been given full rein in upstaging known fact.
Chief of the fun police is a gaunt-looking Timothy Spall as Major Alastair Gregory, who quickly becomes Diana’s bete noire. Typical of his style is the biography of Anne Boleyn that he leaves in Diana’s room. It’s hardly the most tactful choice as a book before bedtime, and has Diana believing she’s become acquainted with Anne’s ghost.
Paradoxically, her royal in-laws don’t seem to be having much fun at all. They’re like puppets in a horror show, silently gathering around the groaning dinner table while Diana struggles to finish the soup. Except for young William and Harry, few of the royals have speaking parts. As an implacably smug Queen Elizabeth, Stella Gonet takes the trouble to dispense a few cynical words of advice to Diana, while a languidly supercilious Charles (Jack Farthing) gives her a cool lecture on the Janus-faced nature of being a royal. Like the separation of church and state, the distinction between the private and public self must be observed at all times. With that in mind, he can have an affair because he’s discreet; she can’t because discretion is beyond her.
Apart from her sons, Diana’s only confidantes are to be found among the palace staff. The head chef (Sean Harris) keeps a kindly eye on her, vainly hoping that she can calm her stomach long enough to enjoy his apricot souffle. Her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), adores her and tries to persuade Diana of the self-confidence to be derived from her beauty. But as the weekend drags on, she’s drawn more deeply into memory, fantasy and the desire to do herself harm.
Stewart and Jack Farthing, who plays Prince Charles, in a scene from Spencer. Credit: Frederic Batier
Larrain’s intensely introspective approach worked to great effect in Jackie , perhaps because its script maintained a strong connection to reality. Here, he embraces caricature with such hearty enthusiasm that Stewart’s performance is tainted by the absurdities going on around her.
In a breathless, headlong way, Stewart does a credible job, but she’s perched on the edge of hysteria throughout and the upbeat ending fails to alter the impression that she and Larrain have delivered a one-dimensional portrait of a victim. Missing is any plausible pointer to the princess who would become such a brilliant manipulator of her media image.
You can see what Larrain is doing. The royals have been made monstrous by Diana’s imaginings, but if you’ve seen enough of Peter Morgan’s work about the royals ( The Queen, The Audience, The Crown ), the wordless marionettes around the dinner table seem not so much monstrous as ridiculous. And because of that, I found it too much of a stretch to take Diana or her torments with any seriousness.
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- 100 The Guardian Xan Brooks The Guardian Xan Brooks Kristen Stewart proves entirely compelling in the title role. She gives an awkward and mannered performance as Diana, and this is entirely as it should be when one considers that Diana gave an awkward and mannered performance herself, garnishing her inbred posh hauteur with studied coquettish asides.
- 100 The Telegraph Robbie Collin The Telegraph Robbie Collin The 31-year-old Stewart – who will be instantly and justifiably awards-tipped for this – navigates this perilous terrain with total mastery, getting the voice and mannerisms just right but vamping everything up just a notch, in order to better lean into the film’s melodramatic, paranoiac and absurdist swerves.
- 100 The Playlist Jessica Kiang The Playlist Jessica Kiang All the right people are going to hate Spencer. That’s just how good it is.
- 100 Variety Owen Gleiberman Variety Owen Gleiberman Spencer is an intimate speculative drama that stays as close as it can to everything we know about Diana. At the same time, the movie is infused with a poetic extravagance.
- 80 The Hollywood Reporter David Rooney The Hollywood Reporter David Rooney Not everything lands in Spencer, and I often wondered if the film was so set on bucking convention that it would alienate its audience. But it tells a sorrowful story we all think we know in a new and genuinely disturbing light.
- 75 RogerEbert.com Monica Castillo RogerEbert.com Monica Castillo Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is a haunting reimagining of a tense Christmas holiday in the life of Princess Diana.
- 75 The Film Stage David Katz The Film Stage David Katz This is a film that will potentially delight, challenge, and force its wide target audience to take seriously on its own terms. A dream ballet of a dying star.
- 67 IndieWire Ben Croll IndieWire Ben Croll Doing away with any pretense of docu-realism, Spencer is neither a film about specifics nor any of conventional biopic; it is instead a sort of haunted house chamber piece that doesn’t try to locate the real woman behind the legend — as the title might suggest — as it does to reimagine her within a wholly different pop lexicon.
- 60 BBC Nicholas Barber BBC Nicholas Barber Stewart is such inspired casting that she makes all this eccentric nonsense watchable.
- 50 Time Stephanie Zacharek Time Stephanie Zacharek Stewart gives her all, as she always does. But she plays Diana as a mannered doe—all wrong, given that does are the most unmannered creatures on Earth. Her performance is clearly stylized, but it’s also packed with calculation and guile. Larraín turns this Diana into exactly the thing the royal family accused the real-life Diana of being, a willful and pouty constant complainer.
- See all 53 reviews on Metacritic.com
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