The Royal Family is just an awful institution. Beyond the their regal facade and ‘stiff upper lip’ bullshit, they seem to exist as these powerless figureheads that only serve as tabloid fodder or an infrequent reminder of how fucking useless monarchies have always been.
Enter Spencer, a biopic focusing on three days of what it’s like to be trapped inside Buckingham Palace with this group of aging, dead-eyed figureheads during the holidays. And it’s all told through the eyes of the late Princess Diana, played by Kristen Stewart. Though Stewart was derided early in her career for droning her way through the Twilight saga, anyone who caught 2009’s Adventureland could see glimpses of what she’s capable of. And while Spencer is clearly Oscar bait, Stewart does have a shot at a deserved nomination here.
From the opening montage, which finds Diana lost in the backroads of England trying to find the palace and finding surprisingly little help from locals, it’s clear that director Pablo Larraín wants to convey his lead as a woman out of her depth. A commoner married into royalty, she’s become an alien in the land she’s grown up, and now outcast from both regular, everyday people and the sentient corpse farts that are inexplicably deemed nobility.
Though Spencer approaches greatness in parts, with impressive cinematography that can feel deceitfully comforting, it’s Stewart’s take on The People’s Princess that ends up carrying the film. In an age of overdone prosthetics and CGI trickery to make someone look like their real-life counterparts, Stewart does disappear into her role. Granted, whether she manages to actually capture who her character was is known to only to those who actually knew Diana, but as a stand-alone performance, she’s magnificent – despite the film’s own frequent hiccups.
Yes, those greatness-approaching moments are mired by a number of issues. There’s an overbearing score, which appears to walk that fine line between trying to get the audience to understand Diana’s cacophonous discomfort and just being distracting. There’s also the screenwriter Steven Knight’s heavy-handed metaphors and Larraín’s often- clumsy storytelling – to the point it almost feels like the director was letting the film get away from him. Purposefully or otherwise.
What results is an uneven biopic anchored by Stewart’s performance. Though the film does occasionally rise to her level, it never quite manages to hold onto its fleeting instances of potential greatness. Instead, it’s constantly tripped up by its own complete lack of subtlety, to the point where the film almost wants to conspicuously remind you that her unwillingness to adhere to the meaningless traditions held onto by the descendants of brutal, racist, inbred, savage, murdering tyrants inevitably led to her murder.
At the very least, Spencer finally casts the Royal Family as nefarious villains; a role they so wholeheartedly deserve.
After a lengthy run on the festival circuit, Spencer is playing in theaters now