It’s that special time of year! Around Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, moviegoers get hit with a bunch of biopics that are solely made so they can generate Oscar buzz and hopefully take home a couple of statues. Rarely do I see a movie as committed to this purpose as SPENCER, the new Princess Diana biopic with Kristen Stewart in the lead role. This is a film that tells three days in the life of Diana in which she is attending the annual Christmas dinner with the British Royal Family. At this point, she has made known her disposition as someone who does not conform to the old and outdated traditions of the crown, and the animosity from the rest of the family is heavily felt during her entire stay. However, she cares very deeply for her two kids, William and Harry, and she is a great mother despite all of the hardship she faces from their father, Charles. The movie’s primary focus is showing the ways in which Diana does not fit in and how she retaliates against the forces that are trying to keep her in line.
There is plenty of artistic merit to be found in SPENCER, mainly from a technical perspective. Director Pablo Larraín, who has already flexed his biopic muscles on films like Jackie, helms yet another true story like a pro. His skillful direction, along with the incredible cinematography from Claire Mathon, makes the film look stunning and almost like a VHS tape from the 90s at times. The decision to come out so overtly against the British Royal Family was also a bold and powerful decision that I believe was necessary for this film to succeed. A Diana biopic would not work without some serious criticism shelled out towards the British elites, and this movie is not shy in its contempt for the way the Royal Family treated her. I’m glad that the message people will take away from SPENCER is one of sharp disdain for the regime that has controlled many people’s lives, so the success the film may have come awards’ season will not seem entirely unfounded.
Somehow, despite some great ingredients in the mix, SPENCER still fell flat for me because of some over-dramatic and silly writing that made the narrative feel like a mediocre recreation rather than an authentic account of Diana’s mental state. I don’t have to be a history expert to know that most of the events shown in this movie are dramatic retellings that didn’t actually occur, and the script relies on these overpowering and absurd scenes to tell the story more often than not. Did this film need to be 100 percent true? Of course not. Movies like One Night in Miami are complete fabrications, yet they still send a powerful message about their time without feeling like they are doing wrong by the real people they depict. SPENCER sometimes feels like it is doing a grand disservice to Diana’s real-life struggle by depicting many over-the-top dream sequences with overly emotional acting and metaphors that are so on-the-nose that it feels like a parody of itself.
All of this, unfortunately, has an impact on Kristen Stewart’s lead performance, which always feels like an impersonation of Diana rather than a natural depiction of the real person. I don’t believe this blunder is entirely Stewart’s fault, for there are many scenes where she clearly has the emotional and physical attributes of the character down. The writing is what stops everything here from soaring for me, and if the movie wasn’t so fixated on creating ridiculous dream sequences with Anne Boleyn and awkward confrontational dinner scenes that feel straight out of a well-shot soap opera, then perhaps Stewart’s performance could have shined more.
I can’t emphasize the overuse of metaphors enough as being a major issue of this screenplay: multiple times Steven Knight’s script hits us with heavy-handed and silly metaphors such as the “horse that can’t be tamed,” or the “beautiful yet misunderstood bird that is simply bred to be hunted,” or the ridiculous Boleyn dream sequences meant to give an artsy take on Diana’s situation. Along with this, the movie sometimes paces itself like an art-house horror movie in order to make the audience feel isolated and scared like Diana. These choices come across as jarring and confusing at best with a Jonny Greenwood score that obnoxiously distracts from each scene.
At the end of the day, SPENCER is an artistic mess made with good intentions and talent. I appreciate much of the thought-process that went into the themes and messaging here and I definitely wouldn’t mind if another movie expanded on it, but the execution comes across as forced and awkward for much of the runtime, rendering moot any of the film’s potential impact. I don’t see most viewers being wowed by this odd and sometimes silly movie despite it being about such a powerful public figure, but critics and lovers of risky decision-making in movies might find enjoyment in it. Larraín and others definitely put a lot of effort into the technical aspects of this movie and none of that will go unappreciated come awards season I’m sure, but the movie as a whole never seems to take off and never justified my viewing experience.