SPENCER movie poster | ©2021 Neon

SPENCER movie poster | ©2021 Neon

Rating: R
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Elizabeth Berrington, Stella Gonet, Amy Manson, James Harkness
Writer: Steven Knight
Director: Pablo Larrain
Distributor: Neon
Release Date: November 5, 2021

SPENCER announces itself in an opening title card as “a fable from a true tragedy.” The movie feels like a kind of tone poem about Lady Diana Spencer, aka Diana, Princess of Wales, played here by Kristen Stewart.

Given that writer Steven Knight and director Pablo Larrain start out by stating that SPENCER is not meant to be taken literally, we don’t expect a documentary portrait of Diana.

Still, it’s hard to reconcile the film’s wholly victimized protagonist as the real woman who so successfully managed her public image in the years of her marriage. Rather than being depicted as someone whose coping mechanisms are failing, Diana seems to have none, which make us wonder how she has lasted this long.

The opening sequence is a mystery, as we’re invited to question what exactly we’re watching. It appears to be a military exercise. Instead, it is an illustration of just how regimented life is when the Queen and her relations are in residence.

SPENCER is set over the three-day Christmas holiday at Sandringham Castle, where the British Royal Family traditionally gathers for the occasion. At this point, Diana has been married to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) for a decade.

Despite having grown up near Sandringham, Diana gets lost on her way there and turns up late. We see how every detail of her life is micromanaged. We definitely understand that she feels bored and trapped.

However, SPENCER often finds itself on the wrong side of the border between depicting monotony and producing it. The film is gorgeous and meticulously nuanced, but this does not mean that it is emotionally urgent.

We find ourselves with way too much time to wonder why Diana doesn’t seem to have much empathy for the predicaments of the palace staff, who are caught between not wanting to disobey the princess and not wanting to disobey higher-ranking royals.

Diana is given moments of normal humanity – when she is with her children (Jack Nielen as William, Freddie Spry has Harry, both fine), and when she is with loyal servant/friend Maggie (Sally Hawkins). SPENCER might have benefitted from more of this earlier, so that we might have a little more investment in Diana.

SPENCER also seeks to draw parallels between Diana and Anne Boleyn (played by Amy Manson in Diana’s visions). The comparison is unfair to several parties, and manages to make things more histrionic without generating more excitement.

Stewart, Hawkins, Timothy Spall as the British Army Major in charge of the scene, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran are all deserving of honors for their work here, and are likely to be mentioned on awards lists. SPENCER has much to recommend it in its production and enactment, but for many viewers, it may also require much patience.

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