The casting, with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, is brilliant, and the ending, in a top convertible, is sublime. So why is the rest of Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” such a hollow exercise in a high camp?
Not long ago, Chilean director Larraín created another meditation on mythology in the similarly conceptual, “Jackie”.
It was also an elegantly elegant film with an engaging lead performance in Natalie Portman as Jaqueline Kennedy and a penetrating, discordant score by Mica Levi. Here, again, is an empathic but arcane character study (this time the jazz score is by Jonny Greenwood) about a character and personality in a 20th-century cauldron of fame and tragedy.
“Jackie” had the sharp edges of a psychological thriller and draped herself in the memories of a funeral past.
“Spencer,” which opens Friday in theaters, is more like a ghost story – a dreamy, luxurious version of “The Shining,” with the Overlook Hotel exchanged for the Queen Sandringham Estate, where Princess Diana wanders in isolation and suffocating anxiety.
When she sneaks in at night and guards come at her with flashlights, Diana tells them, “Tell me you saw a ghost.”
It is often so in “Spencer,” written with too often a nasal touch by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Locke”). Everything is in quotes. Everything is metaphorical and premonitory.
The year is 1991, six years before Diana’s death but at the height of her disagreement with the royal family. Diana is now aware of Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles; this Christmas reunion was when she supposedly decided to end the wedding. In “Spencer,” the family already has their knives for Diana. They blame her.
“I’m a magnet for madness,” she says. “Madness of other people.”
But it’s a bit before Diana contacts almost anyone. Larraín opens the film with a military cavalcade along a tree-lined road to Sandringham – heavy preparations for the holiday.
All the royal captures in “Spencer” are military and, we assume, possibly deadly for Diana. Her suspicious caretaker is a major (Timothy Spall) and the cook (Sean Harris) quotes the battle speech from “Henry V”. “Will they kill me?” Diana asks him, referring to the royal family.
But before we meet them, Diana breeze meanders the nearby hills in her cabriolet. She enters a cafe to ask for directions.
As everyone gaps, she pretends to be the lost princess, soaking up the scene. After she arrives late, Diana remains isolated. “Spencer” includes brief appearances by Charles (Jack Farthing) and Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet), but Larraín’s film exists in a dreamy and elegant removal that is sketched entirely from Diana’s excited interior. “Spencer” is presented as a “fable of true tragedy.”
In both “Jackie” and “Spencer”, Larraín deserves credit for thus avoiding the expected bio-image structure. (Some even began to wonder if he might later deal with Britney Spears.)
Each portrait is sensitive and exploratory. But an abstract, artistic guess is not a particularly revealing substitute for a biofilm convention.
The drama is drawn so sharply – Diana as crushed by the traditions and restrictions of the evil royal family – that it falls into a repetitive volley of encounters with gossipy staff members (Sally Hawkins appears as Diana’s trusty maid), sweeter moments with her sons (played by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) and increasingly abstract scenes from Diana’s bulimia and her threatening fate, with appearances by Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson).
Does any of this wash away? Not really, but “Spencer” – playful to the point of stupidity at times – is so thickly symbolic that its unreliable relationship to some historical reality may be out of the question.
“Spencer,” really, may be more about Kristen Stewart than Princess Di. The wisdom of the casting lies in the many parallels between Stewart and Diana, both young women pushed under the microscope with their own loads, and pleasures, of a celebrity.
Some praised the technicality of Stewart’s performance – the accent, the gestures – but, for me, the performance is not about transformation at all. You never for a moment forget that this is Stewart as Diana, and you could very easily take all of Diana’s rebellions as Stewart’s own.
“Spencer” may be unsuccessful as a story about Diana, but as an exaggerated portrait of Stewart, it’s magnetic.
“Spencer,” a Neon edition, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for any language. Duration: 111 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.