Leading Actress (Kristin Stewart)
My first reaction when Spencer popped up next on my list of movies to watch and review was something along the lines of “Do we really need another screen telling of the tragedy of Princess Diana’s life?” Especially for the TV screen, there have been dozens of stories of the life, and death, of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. Her story has been repeated so often that everyone must, by now, know exactly how bad her marriage was, and how her life then ends in an untimely and tragic death. Loved by the people, and the paparazzi, it was fleeing the latter, in a desperate search for privacy, that finally killed her.
But Spencer is not your typical biographical retelling. This is a different story told, as the film announces itself, as “a fable based on a true tragedy.” And that difference is likely to determine whether you like this film or not. Popular reaction to the movie is not very positive and I suspect that is because nobody in this film comes across as appealing. Clearly Queen Elizabeth and her royal family are portrayed as cold as their frigid estate house. Defenders of the British monarchy are very likely to find offense. And Diana, in this film, is less someone you feel sympathy towards and more someone who borders on the insane, inspiring, not so much love and admiration, but rather pity and desperation. Those enthralled with the Princess may not find the woman they want to love and cherish. And yet, despite all that, I thought this was an excellent movie and one of my favorites this year.
The film, ostensibly, takes place over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (the day after Christmas in Britain) in 1991 at the royal family’s holiday estate, Sandringham. At this point, Diana had been married to Prince Charles for a decade and his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles was widely known. Interestingly, Diana Spencer had grown up at Park House, a smaller estate that the Spencer family leased from the Queen and was very near the Sandringham residence. Spending the holidays there was also an opportunity for Diana to nostalgically relive parts of her childhood. It turns out that Diana, as a child, had frequently played with Princes Andrew and Edward, but not Prince Charles as he was, in fact, 13 years older than she was! The opening sequences of the movie involve the British military bringing in the food for the royal family’s holiday festivities – food plays such an important role in this film, expressing both the extreme luxury of these people as well as their strict adherence to formal tradition and order. The story tells how Diana deals with the events of these three days in a world where she does not feel she belongs.
Having set that stage, though, the best way to view this film is to forget entirely that it is about Diana Spencer. Instead pretend it is about someone trapped in a gilded cage – a beautiful, vibrant young woman who is both totally without privacy and yet so completely alone. She is a person who is not even allowed to dress herself and, at one point, asks a maid to leave so she can masturbate (was that a joke, or was it not? It doesn’t matter, and that’s the point!) It is unlikely that the events told here unfolded exactly that way in real life – but, again, that’s not the point. This is an exaggeration of pretty much everything and the beauty of the exaggeration is that the viewer begins to feel the intensity of the woman’s struggle. You don’t have to identify with her in any way, nor are you led to really care for her in any real sense. But what you get from this film is a sample of the intense pressure and anguish of being forced to bottle up your feelings until, somehow, they are squeezed out in ways no-one expects, maybe least of all, you!
The film is brought to us by an accomplished and creative team. Steven Knight (Pretty Little Things), British born in 1959, wrote the script. Pablo Larrain directed this film and, interestingly, he is younger and not British, born in 1976 in Santiago, Chile. But this is his second film about a beautiful woman caught in the battle between public and private, having given us Jackie (2016) about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (As in this film, the lead actress, Natalie Portman, earned a leading actress nomination.) Larrain assembled an Oscar-experienced team including Production Designer Hendrix Dyas (Oscar nominations for Passengers and Inception), Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran (eight nominations and two wins for Little Women (2019) and Anna Karenina (2012)), and Composer Jonny Greenwood (Oscar nominations for The Power of the Dog (2021) and Phantom Thread (2017)) . Greenwood’s discordant strings echo the stridency of the emotions and give an unrelenting eerie feeling without becoming dominant. Even with a modest budget of just $18 million, this team produces results of a much bigger film.
In front of the camera is an outstanding cast of supporting actors. Timothy Spall – who has received five BAFTA nominations – plays Major Alistar Gregory, perhaps the ultimate expression of the aristocratic order and the “watcher so others don’t see!”. Sallie Hawkins, also British, has two Oscar nominations (Shape of Water and Blue Jasmine) and plays Maggie, one of only two people who Diana can trust (or can she?) Add to those two a wonderfully nasty Queen Elizabeth, a completely deplorable Prince Charles, and a kindly head chef and you have the really important characters. (Oh, and Anne Boleyn makes a strategic appearance or two that roots Diana’s situation in ancient royal history.)
Despite the wonderful efforts of all those people, the movie belongs to Kristen Stewart. And, really, who knew? Joan, my wife, really doesn’t like her, considering her something of an LA bitch, like many that she went to high school with. And I, having only known her through her role as Bella in the Twilight movies and as Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman, was never really impressed by her acting. But, like many other critics, she has surprised the hell out of us with her performance in Spencer. Perhaps because of Stewart’s own experience – with being famous and the paparazzi – she brings an awareness of Diana’s situation that is frighteningly real. Early on we see how Stewart has mastered Diana’s mannerisms and accent. Apparently, a former Diana bodyguard says that Stewart, more than any other actress, has captured the style and feel of Diana. (Watch how she is always turning her head and looking over her shoulder, just like Diana did.)
I first saw Stewart’s incredible intensity in the Christmas Eve dinner scene with the pearls and the soup. Watch how she passionately consumes her meal. Then I especially loved her confrontation with Charles at the billiard table. Watch her fingers caress – no, touch without feeling – the edging of the table and imagine the tension as she asserts her personal moral authority (with a single white ball) against her husband’s overwhelming command of the situation and of her (and his rack of red balls). Her fingers move up and down as her face contorts to match her words as she flails, emotionally, against an impenetrable stone wall. Then, again, Stewart commands the role at the top of the stairs at Park House as she desperately contemplates her future…
In scene after scene Stewart rises to a level of acting art that wasn’t just surprising coming from her, but was surprising coming from anyone. I’ve reviewed my notes on the other four of this year’s Leading Actress nominees and considered their roles, and despite the fact that this is Stewart’s first Oscar nomination, I think she blew the rest out of the water. Apparently, even Stewart said that this “was the best thing I’ve ever done. This is the most alive I’ve ever felt”. I now eagerly look forward to future work from Kristin Stewart.
If you are looking for another tale of the stuffy monarchy and their awful treatment of a Diana deserving of sympathy and love, this will likely not satisfy your craving. But, if you want to explore what she was feeling, stretched to the outer limits – and experience an actress ready to take you there – then watch this movie. (4*)
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