Director Pablo Larraín loves his gilded cages. The Chilean bad boy auteur’s “Spencer” is in many ways a spiritual sequel to his entrancingly artsy 2016 U.S. debut “Jackie,” which shattered typical conventions of Hollywood portraiture to instead spend three days unstuck in time with Natalie Portman’s shell-shocked first lady, planning a president’s funeral as the first draft of a legacy. If that film was about the conscious creation of a Camelot myth, this follow-up is about the impossibility of maintaining it, trapped for a holiday weekend with a fraught Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana as she struggles mightily to make it through the formalities. Billed as “a fable from a true tragedy,” it’s a biopic that conveys little in the way of biographical information and is more concerned with claustrophobia and the despair of a woman sometimes literally sewn into the bondage of oppressive, old traditions. I liked the movie a lot until I didn’t anymore.
Diana’s late to the queen’s 1991 Christmas retreat at Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, having insisted upon driving herself. We first see her stopping to ask for directions at a coffee shop where the customers can’t believe who they’re seeing. Neither can we, at first. It’s obviously not Diana and clearly Kristen Stewart. But much in the magical way that “Jackie” capitalized on Natalie Portman’s precocious theater-kid poise as a key to unlocking Kennedy’s character, Stewart’s status as a tabloid perennial and one of the most invasively photographed women in the world almost alchemically spills over into her deer-like screen presence as Diana. She’s captured something elemental about the essence of the woman, at least whenever she’s not speaking.
Words are a problem in “Spencer.” Big ones. The screenplay is by the wildly erratic British cinema go-to guy Steven Knight. The prolific “Peaky Blinders” creator has penned everything from cool crime dramas like “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things” to the forehead-smacking erotic videogame thriller “Serenity.” (I think I’m the only critic who liked “Locked Down,” his screwball pandemic heist comedy from earlier this year.) His script for “Spencer” never met a metaphor it couldn’t laboriously over-explain, with many, many monologues about beautiful things being kept in cages and innocent creatures bred to be hunted. Some snarky servant has left a book about Anne Boleyn in the princess’ room, and now Diana’s worrying she’s headed (sorry) for the same fate, verbalizing stuff that’s already screamingly visually obvious.
In “Jackie,” Larraín turned the White House into the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining,” and in “Spencer” he makes Sandringham into the apartment from Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” He loves positioning his actresses smack dab in the center of the screen with a super wide-angle lens distorting the world around them. A gift of a pearl necklace from Prince Charles becomes an albatross around Diana’s neck when she learns he gave the same to his mistress. The movie’s morbid highlight flirts with Cronenbergian body horror when she snaps the string during dinner and the pearls cascade into her soup, Diana scarfing them down and then violently vomiting the jewels back up. The movie’s poster cleans up its most evocative image: with the princess on her knees, an extravagant gown splayed out beautifully behind her, her head in the toilet. Sickened before the throne.
The Princess of Wales’ outfits for the weekend are laid out and labeled “POW,” as if we already had any doubt she’s a prisoner. The Royals have brought in a special butler to keep her in line over the holidays, a scowling, stentorian sort played by the great Timothy Spall, who speaks menacingly of “tradition” as if he were the villain in a John le Carré thriller. The only friendly face in the compound is Diana’s dresser, played by Sally Hawkins, on hand to provide perky pep talks whenever Larraín’s florid, horror movie flourishes have become too overbearing.
“Spencer” has a lot of the same problems as “Lisey’s Story,” Larraín’s eight-hour Stephen King adaptation that aired to little notice on Apple TV+ this past summer. He’s a filmmaker who thinks in bold, often abstract images and concepts that don’t always sit well alongside conventionally scripted scenes. (“Ema,” Larraín’s gloriously gonzo return to Chile released earlier this year, benefited from a fragmented timeline more suited to his surreal flights of fancy.) “Spencer” has a dazzling montage of Diana being spun about in endless outfits like a living paper-doll plaything, but such stark sequences don’t mesh at all with the movie’s increasingly inspirational aims, as it somehow tries to wrestle an upbeat ending out of a 20th-century tragedy. Given Diana’s eventual fate, I can only assume the movie’s final montage is intended to be bitterly ironic.
Folks who follow such things are already saying Stewart is the front runner for a Best Actress Oscar this year, which makes sense as the best way to win an acting award these days is by doing a convincing imitation of a famous dead person. It also makes sense because people usually win Oscars for their least interesting work. The brilliance of Stewart as a performer is her gift for minimalism, drawing you in by vibrating at a frequency so subtle it makes even the deftest other actors look like hams. “Spencer” is her messiest and most extroverted performance to date, breathlessly exhaling her dialogue in an affectation that becomes monotonous, missing all her characteristic calibrations. She’s so good in the silent scenes, you might find yourself siding with the royals when they wish she’d just shut up.
“Spencer” opens in theaters on Friday, Nov. 5.