Oscar Films

Poor Poor Princess Diana

The film ‘Spencer’ is beautiful but silly. And Kristen Stewart is a weak choice for best actress.

By - Feb 9th, 2022 05:30 pm
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in SPENCER. Photo by Pablo Larrain.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in SPENCER. Photo by Pablo Larrain.

The film opens with a vista of perfectly aligned trees and passing trucks, then slightly eerie sound effects as sentries guard a huge empty royal kitchen — then a blond actress with a familiar haircut speeds by on the country road, weirdly alone for a royal princess, seeking the way to her grandmother’s estate and Christmas dinner with the family.

We’ve seen this sort of style before, the indirect entry into the land of the opulent rich, in the 2016, Oscar-nominated Jackie by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, a vision of Jackie Kennedy (Onassis) struggling with neurosis set against lavish backgrounds. Larrain imagined much of that struggle with the kind of sympathetic invention Hollywood loves and we do, too, our feelings easily stirred for a lost princess struggling against relentless fame and media. That film gained a best actress nomination for Natalie Portman and furthered Larrain’s reputation for elaborate camera techniques and psychological journeys.

Here we are again at Oscar time. Same director, similar style, similarly based on a real life, another actress carrying the load, but even deeper phantasmagoria, even a horror story, about the late and beloved Princess Diana, actually justified on screen as a “fable from true tragedy.”

The movie Spencer (her family name), presents Diana speeding to her royal prison, muttering to herself and hallucinating as she faces up to divorcing Prince Charles.

It is a fable, but is it also a true tragedy? Maybe, if we are always on Diana’s side, viewing her husband as a stuffed shirt ordering her not to throw up at the family dinner and seeing the queen as an always smirking cold fish.

Diana is constantly running away from and into a regimented prison of luxury corridors, fancy curtains and prying eyes, every maid and butler a spy. She imagines slurping a green vichyssoise full of the string of pearls Charles has given her, which are like the pearls he gave Camilla (she already knows). She envies the local field’s scarecrow, feeling like a pheasant being shot by royal hunters. Moments with her children return her partly to normal, at least in this concoction.

Going mad before our eyes (despite a last minute mental rescue out of nowhere) is the style of Lorrain, who expertly arranges the details and gets us squirming at a world lined up as her enemy. His skill at composition is unassailable. But beautiful to watch is not the same as beautiful to think about.

In 2017, Portman was a mere placeholder in the best actress category, and the same is expected for Kristen Stewart. Only because of that likelihood is the film in Oscar discussion – along with seeking to elevate Stewart’s reputation after the “Twilight” films.

We can distinguish film acting from genuine acting (and love the bodies that can do both). Maybe Stewart can, but as used here, loping across fields and flashing eyes in close-ups, then cut-in fragments of conversation, the main Di details are only in the way she gasps for breath and gulps as she talks. She represents the film acting side only, a performance that could easily be pieced together from small takes.

For an established actress, look to Sally Hawkins as her loving dresser. Now that’s a good performance. Stewart’s Diana is more like impaling a butterfly on a pin and seeing how neurotically it can quiver.

The film is hanging around a few theaters, but mainly available for rent at streaming services.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us