Availability: Showing (again) in some theaters; widely available for rent or purchase and streaming on Hulu, Apple TV, Amazon and others—see JustWatch here.
He said/She said
Not since Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017), have the reviewers at 2 Film Critics been so at odds over a film as we were after the screening of “Spencer,” the story of Princess Diana’s (Kristen Stewart) determination to maintain a sense of self while dealing with the crushing social conformism of Britain’s royal family. The earlier disagreement had an ideological foundation, and this one did not, but it was real enough.
Diana (Kristen Stewart),
trapped in tradition.
We were on the same page for the opening scenes, which feature a military-like contingent of lorries, each one running over the remains of a dead bird (aha! early metaphor!), delivering locked army crates to Norfolk’s Sandringham House in 1991, all to reveal that the crates were full of elaborate delicacies—lobster, fruits, and the like—to be served to the illustrious guests throughout the 3-day Christmas festivities to come (as the Windsors have celebrated the holiday since 1870). We agreed that the opening was too long, too highly structured to seem “real,” and the payoff—the opening of the crates—trivial and unnecessary; much of the remainder of the film (too much, really) is about food and its serving. Diana, we learned, was bulimic.
The bulimic Princess Diana, right.
On the film’s final scenes we were at odds. Bill bought into the Hollywood ending; Dianne found the same scenes excessive and over-the-top.
On the film’s final scenes we were at odds. As he’s prone to do, Bill bought into the Hollywood ending, complete with celebratory group singing of the 1986 hit by Mike + The Mechanics, “All I Need Is a Miracle,” and the film-ending line “Spencer” that underscores Princess Diana’s desire to retain some sense of a former, non-royal way of being while confirming her bond to sons William and Harry. Perhaps Dianne is less vulnerable to the charms of “Hollywood” than Bill (not a high bar); she found the same scenes excessive and over-the-top. For basically the same reason, reality woman Dianne found Diana’s theatrical arrival at the pheasant hunt overly, well, theatrical (that is, not something Diana would ever have done), while Bill thought the scene, however stagey, encapsulated Diana’s concern for the long-term well-being of her boys. Similarly, Dianne characterized an early scene, featuring Diana, Harry, and William playing a truth-telling game, to be hyper-scripted and, again, unlikely to ever have happened. Bill thought it presented Diana as a caring mother and was an effective way of enlisting the boys in Diana’s conflict with the strictures of being “royal.”
Diana, rescuing her boys from the pheasant hunt.
Bill’s tolerance for Hollywood-style drama did not prevent him from joining Dianne in her critique of a long scene featuring Diana absconding from the main house at night with wire cutters and slashing her way through concertina wire into the shuttered, abandoned, run-down house nearby where she grew up (and identified in her mind with freedom). Diana would have been stopped, we thought. And the scene has an inappropriate, manipulative quasi-horror quality to it—creaking and then collapsing stairs, eerie music (score by Jonny Greenwood), the dropped flashlight, roaming the rooms of her youth in the darkness. Not only is the scene superfluous (we already know she’s nostalgic about her childhood) but in putting flesh on Diana’s memories, it limits our ability to imagine and fill in her past.
Kristen Stewart, right, mastered the subtleties of Diana's movements.
Our experiences with the major and minor characters were mixed, and sometimes differed. We agreed that Kristen Stewart’s performance was deserving of an Oscar nomination (we’ve both been fans since 2014’s “Clouds of Sils Maria”); Dianne (with some knowledge of Diana’s history) was struck with Stewart’s mastery of the subtleties of Diana’s movements; Bill had no idea whether this was true or not. Director Pablo Larrain (“Jackie” 2016) could be making a cottage industry of impersonations; we both agreed Stewart’s interpretation of Diana rose above that.
Maggie’s (Sally Hawkins) startling beach-side revelation produces lots of giggling without being of consequence, for Diana or the production. A moment that could have been revealing is not.
Dianne was singularly unimpressed with the film’s “minor” characters (everyone besides Diana), arguing that they were all of little interest or depth, and none of them (with the possible exception of the boys) had any effect on Diana. That may be true, Bill responded, but he found the head chef (Sean Harris) a credible mentor and semi-confidant, remarkably (Dianne would say “improbably”) familiar in his language with the princess, calling her “Diana” rather than “Your Royal Highness.” Bill also admired Sally Hawkins’s (“The Shape of Water,” 2017) performance as Maggie, Diana’s dresser, though he’s willing to admit that Maggie’s startling beach-side revelation produces lots of giggling without being of consequence, for Diana or the production. A moment that could have been revealing is not. We agreed that Charles (Jack Farthing) was a non-entity in the film, and that the equerry, Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), was cast—and acted—to type. To a stereotype.
Timothy Spall, left, playing
the equerry, to stereotype.
Some of these are trivial differences. Not so for the film as whole. Bill, whose prior knowledge of Diana, and of the royal family, was minimal at best, enjoyed being introduced to the rigid requirements of participation in that milieu and to Diana’s rebellious state-of-mind, of which he knew nothing. Diana’s frustrations triggered Bill’s own horror at the thought of life as a celebrity (and maybe even his own family Christmases), with its call to service the needs of others—the paparazzi as intermediaries—rather than the discovery and unfolding of the self. Moreover, he appreciated the tight focus of the film—3 days of holidays, with all the anxieties they expose.
Dianne was of another mind. With some justification (but just some), she found the tight focus unduly limiting. Diana’s feelings as an outsider were present at the beginning of the film, and at the end; two scenes of her driving a sports car with the top down serve not only as filmic bookends, but as a reminder that the film was shaped and scripted to present just one dimension of Diana: her resistance to tradition and authority. Hence Diana emerges as a static, unchanging character—and how uninteresting is that!
One lesson from all of this: what one sees in a film depends a great deal on what one brings to it. Not exactly a pearl of wisdom, but true.
Director: Pablo Larrain
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris
Runtime: 117 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Stewart)
Other Awards: 33 wins (most for Stewart as Best Actress) and 119 nominations
Country: United Kingdom, Germany, United States, Chile