Halfway through Spencer I began to question whether I have ever liked Pablo Larrain as a filmmaker. Earlier this year his adaptation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story was unwatchable. I did not care for The Club (2015). But I had to remind myself that I liked No (2012), Jackie (2016) and Neruda (2016). Maybe this new one will end up in the like column as well. Alas it did not.
Spencer is supposedly the story of the weekend country sojourn in which Princess Diana of Wales, née Spencer (Kristen Stewart), decided to divorce Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). It’s told like a ghost story; a woman in peril in a big house, surrounded by dubious people, some might be in her corner, others want to sabotage her. It’s Diana as Rebecca (1940). And it’s as alienating as much of Larrain’s work. Though done with top notch craft and an aesthetic recognizable to most cinephiles.
Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight have a good premise. They are trying to tell a story of finding the fortitude to break away from a life that’s suffocating while being completely isolated. However they run out of narrative threads quickly and spend the rest of the movie repeating themselves. Diana, isolated with no one to trust. The servants in the big house (Timothy Spall, Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins among them) might be spying on her for the royal family. Or are they her allies? Repeat over and over again. Then so many scenes of Diana running. Along hallways, in the meadows. And so much twirling. So much twirling. So much of it that it bears repeating. The movie’s true title should’ve been “Twirling With No Substance.” Who knew it would be Larrain who would inherit the mantle from Terence Malick in this most dubious of categories.
There is nothing about what Knight wrote or what Stewart plays that is specifically about Diana. The details are vague. This could be about any anonymous rich white lady trapped in a cult. One who has access to fancy clothes, castles, maids and personal cooks. Stewart plays her like a haunted woman trapped and she’s effective. However she neither looks nor sounds like Diana. Inhabitation is not necessary with biopics, sometimes just a nod to the real person is enough. See Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland. But there’s not even a nod here. If this wasn’t called ‘Spencer” we wouldn’t be talking about awards. Nor would a swath of the potential audience be interested. So maybe it’s a calculated move. Let’s make a movie about a haunted woman trying to escape from a cult. Any woman, no need to be specific nor add any recognizable details. But still call it Spencer. Boo! Awards. Buzz. Magazine covers. Box office though might not materialize if enough people catch on to what it really is.
Impersonation aside, Stewart is no more than fine. She plays this woman as very frightened, as if she’s in a gothic horror film. Whispery breathy voice, quizzical look. It fits the framework Larrain put her in. However the critical response to this performance is baffling. Even within Stewart’s limited oeuvre it doesn’t stand out. She’s been much more affecting with Olivier Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) and Personal Shopper (2017).
All of this would have been forgotten if Spencer actually had a story to tell. This is a bunch of scenes shot well, with actors repeating the same notes over and over in different but limited locations. There is nothing to see here.