4/10 Spencer’s advertisements always have a moment to designate it as an “official selection” in the Venice, Toronto and Telluride film festivals, which is quite literally a show of participation trophies. “Official selection” means it got on the schedule, which is not a small feat, but highlighting how many tastemakers saw this and decided not to give it a real award isn’t a smooth marketing move.
Sandringham House, Christmas 1991- Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart), sleepwalks through the British royal family’s holiday celebration. Her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is already disintegrating, and though she is unable to hold a conversation or even stand alone in a room without distress at this point, she will remain married into the family for another five years. Diana navigates her isolation, her exhaustion with the specific traditions of the House of Windsor, the suppressive gossip of the staff that makes her every breath into tabloid fodder and the rigid wardrobe, menu and future that have been laid out for her.
Spencer is an expansive and effective exploration of rich people problems. Even in an era of dire economic inequality and frequent collapse, you sympathize with Diana onscreen, her pearls like a collar, her fastened blinds like prison bars, massive portraits of Henry VIII gazing down at her from seemingly every wall blaring the public history of legal domestic violence in her lineage.
Spencer doesn’t lack conflict, but it does lack a tangible villain in that no one seems to be in charge. Diana rails against the minute detail with which her every move is controlled, but it’s not clear that any of the other royals are happy with it either. They’re mostly absent, and Charles is the only one who gets more than a few lines. The staff members are the ones who enforce Diana’s participation in the arcane rituals and spread rumors amongst themselves of every tidbit she says, but they all seem sorry about it, and Diana’s ultimate participation is usually in order avoid their getting in trouble.
Writer Steven Knight has a long and varied enough track record that it’s hard to pin this down as his work, but he’s taken the “subtext is for pussies,” never-met-a-symbol-he-didn’t-like approach to Spencer. Diana spends much of the movie sarcastically declaring what’s happening aloud, and her self-pitying rants become so frequent and she lacks so much awareness as she repeats the process of working herself up to go to dinner that she turns into a villain herself. It’s a heroic moment when the groundskeeper (Timothy Spall) interrupts her umpteenth dreary monologue about how unhappy she is toward the end of the film.
Stewart looks both exactly and nothing like Diana. She’s got the glamour and the movements right, but it looks too rehearsed, and her body language becomes less an accurate portrayal and more just a swivel of the hips or shoulders depending on what’s in frame. She looks just as miserable and controlled as her character, but somehow separate, never fully becoming Diana, just Kristen Stewart dressed up as Diana.
Spencer is Chilean director/producer Pablo Larraín’s English-language followup to 2016’s Jackie, another Oscar-season biopic about a critical few days in a fashion icon’s life, in this case Jackie Kennedy being interviewed on the days between her husband’s assassination and funeral, and that’s the least of the films’ striking similarities. Both are shot on 16mm film at 1.66:1, and neither of them look great. There’s noticeably less information in the picture than for average contemporary movies, and if Jackie is any indication, that problem will follow Spencer to the small screen. Somebody must have told him there was a lighting problem with Jackie, because everything is slightly blown out in Spencer, which only exaggerates the lower quality of the footage.
Despite the obvious throughline between them in subject matter and photography, neither film seems to have been Larraín’s idea. Both were penned by different writers without his attachment and have different cinematographers handling the 16mm stock. The only major personnel overlap is editor Sebastián Sepúlveda and producer Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo’s brother, and his Spanish-language films aren’t anything like these. To contradict the idea that this was purely a coincidence, he’s now talking about completing a “trilogy” in this specific style as his next project, so I’m really not sure what’s going on.
There’s more about Spencer to dislike than to enjoy, but Larraín makes an important point about contemporary biopics by focusing his on specific days and key decisions that define his subjects’ lives, instead of the usual sprawling retellings that don’t have anything to say. It’s the type of change I’m frequently calling for, so it’s great to see, even on poor-looking stock and with a script that needs more polish.