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‘Spencer’ Is as Stiff as a Palace Guard

A miscast Kristen Stewart and Oscar-bait moments sink this Lady Di portrait

A really bad weekend in the life of Princess Diana, portrayed by Kristen Stewart, is the focal point of Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer.”

We watch as Lady Di struggles to internalize her misery for a Christmas party; her expressions of profound unhappiness come out as unstable acts, like running off or being late on purpose.

It isn’t just that Lady Di suspects her husband of cheating on her, but her presence in the royal family has become a luxurious, regimented prison from which she can’t wait to escape.

SPENCER - Official Trailer - In Theaters November 5

Larrain previously made “Jackie” (2016), which portrayed Jackie Kennedy in her harrowing moment of facing the assassination of her husband; that film was distancing but compelling, due mostly to Natalie Portman’s strong work in the lead and the pull of the premise.

“Spencer,” on the other hand, is stiff and empty. Yes, it’s attractively shot but sitting through it is a task, and I haven’t even mentioned Jonny Greenwood’s earache of a score.

The countless shots of characters walking down hallways, long, slow pans of a life in total opulence and of Lady Di’s attractively staged and shot misery wore me down. It’s hypocritical to make a film that criticizes the ritualistic nature of a life of supreme privilege, when the film itself is wall-to-wall pageantry and perfume ad posturing.

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There’s also the matter of symbolism, and this is where “Spencer” feels like a self-parody, as Princess Di has visions of Anne Boleyn advising her. There’s also the dead bird in the opening scene that a fleet of royal cars hurry past (do you get it?).

Or how Princess Di dances against the ornate patterns on the floor (seriously, how do you not get it?!). Or the scene in which an argument between Di and Charles is framed as a slow back and forth in between the balls on a pool table.

How are you not getting this?! Just look at that killer symbolism!

Screenwriter Steven Knight has a mixed track record: he wrote “Eastern Promises,” one of my favorite David Cronenberg films, but he’s also the author of “Serenity,” the 2019 Matthew McConaughey howler. Neither Knight nor Larrain seem to trust the audience to absorb the story without force feeding us with foolish, on-the-nose visual nudges in the ribs.

When Stewart appears in one scene as both Princess Di and Lady Boleyn, I wanted to throw her fallen pearls back at the screen.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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I’m not precious about the royal family and don’t object to a film that criticizes their elite inner circle, but this isn’t how you do it. These are one-dimensional portraits at best. Cast members either resemble their real-life counterparts to an uncanny degree (namely Stewart’s top-notch wig) or not at all (the actor playing Prince Charles looks nothing like him and never remotely evokes him).

Stewart’s performance is more about acting than it is embodying Princess Diana. She shines in projects like “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” but here, she’s acting with a capitol A.

This is a highly mannered performance, full of posh whispering and facial tics. It is, like Renee Zellweger’s turn in “Judy,” exactly the kind of performance that wins Oscars but shouldn’t. It’s worth noting that the scenes where Stewart must act natural and let her guard down are her strongest.

When she’s laying on the vocal acrobatics and aggressively performing, it made me wish they had cast someone who wasn’t visibly trying so hard. Stewart resembles Lady Di and is a fine actress, but this isn’t an ideal fit for her, and the result is fighting against the miscasting.

Kristen Stewart Talks About Playing Princess Diana At 'Spencer' Movie Premiere

We feel for Princess Diana and the scenes of her struggling with bulimia are shocking. Stewart makes Princess Di sympathetic. If only the film could have provided a more spontaneous, less forced portrait. Sally Hawkins plays the most enduring character, and a better film would’ve given her more to do.

A sequence of a candlelit nighttime game between Princess Di and her sons and a later encounter on the beach with Princess Di and her best friend are the film’s best; they are the only ones that have life to them. Otherwise, the film’s staging and choreography are so rigid, it’s even more simultaneously pretty to look at and thoroughly off putting than “Jackie” was.

The closing scenes are nice, though I wonder if that’s just the strategic use of Mike + the Mechanics on the soundtrack that cheered me up.

Two Stars

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