Spencer

Spencer ★★

There needs to be a 50+ year grace period between when someone tragically dies, and when you can create fan fiction about their life. Spencer is an Aronofsky-esque take on a particularly tumultuous time in Princess Diana's short life. And while the score, cinematography, and supporting actors all deserve praise, they could not save Spencer. I came away from this thinking: what a self-congratulatory, pretentious piece of filmmaking. I don't often throw the word "pretentious" around when it comes to film criticism, but it is necessary here.

From an ethics perspective, Spencer is rendered in poor taste. To create a thought-experiment about a real figure whose family is still alive, and still feeling the effects of her immense fame and untimely death, is a very bold move. I am able to hand-wave this when it comes to The Crown, because the show presents a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of not just Diana, but the monarchical institution as a concept. In The Crown, we are getting Diana as an atom in a much larger system. Due to the show's chronological structure and ensemble cast, we get an in-depth understanding of how the institution swallows her whole. An important part of Diana's legacy is that she was not a saint. Rather, what made her so attractive to the public was her complexity and willingness to be flawed and vulnerable. As Diana's brother said in her eulogy, "...to sanctify your memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being." This is what we get with Emma Corrin's Diana - smart, volatile, funny, playful, hopelessly lonely, compassionate, and immensely sad.

What we get with Kristen Stewart's Diana is one thing only: immense sadness. I am sorry to say that I did not think Kristen Stewart did a good job portraying Diana. For figures with such distinct physical and verbal traits, it felt as though I was reaching to see these people in the actor's performances - the Queen, Charles, and Diana all fell short when it came to accent and disposition. Stewart, in particular, offered an incredibly one-note and repetitive performance - to the extent that I think it could be easily parodied. Stewart delivers every line with the same level of breathiness and teary anxiety. This occurs even in scenes with the children, where Diana is meant to be most comfortable. Stewart does a fine job with that singular emotion, and her sadness is believable. However, the movie became exhausting by the second half, as there was no levity here. I noted only two distinct moments when Stewart broke from this tenseness: the first is when Harry says he prefers spending time with his mother, and Diana looks vindictive and gleeful in spite of herself. The second is when William struggles to get a sentence out during a game, and Diana laughs in confusion. These were the two moments I felt humanity in Stewart's performance.

The film is chalk full of expositional dialogue to such a degree that I found myself physically eye-rolling at multiple instances, and stiffling my laughter during others. From the outset, we get Diana explaining why and how the royal family weighs themselves every Christmas. We are then privy to a host of different analogies for Diana's suffering: she is a bug being pulled a part under a microscope, she is a pheasant bred to be shot, she wears a pearl necklace which doubles as both collar and noose, and worst of all - she is Anne Boleyn. Yes, the film takes the liberty of drawing a very loose parallel between Princess Diana and Anne Boleyn. Why? Because Anne Boleyn's husband was having an affair, yet she lost her head for it. Diana on the other hand, and this is said out loud, refuses to offer her head to the chopping block. This metaphor is stretched so far, that Diana begins to see hallucinations of Anne Boleyn walking around the estate, in typical Black Swan fashion.

Which brings me to perhaps my least favourite aspect of the film - its gratuity. I was shocked to see Diana's eating disorder shown so vividly on screen. The viewer is invited to watch as she sticks her finger down her throat - we watch as the vomit comes out of her mouth. We also watch her self harm - cutting herself violently with wire clippers. It is now common knowledge that Diana struggled with an eating disorder, and that she self-harmed, but the film seems preoccupied with these illnesses in a way that feels almost fetishistic and instructional. Coupled with the highly aestheticized camera work, this read as gratuitous and exploitative. Had Spencer been about a fictional women, I could perhaps look past. But this is someone who died less than 25 years ago.

In all, Spencer is overwrought, self-serious, and most of all: unnecessary. This film did not need to be made. It strikes me that Pablo Larrain wanted to make a film about a sad girl, and used the renewed public interest in Princess Diana to get it off the ground. This was Lana del Rey writes Princess Diana. It was A24 tries biopics. It was Darron Aronofsky vs. the royal family. It was trite, boring, and I did not like it.

Oh, did I mention they attempted a queer plot line?