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film review

Kristen Stewart in Spencer.Pablo Lorrain/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

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Directed by Pablo Larraín

Written by Steven Knight

Starring Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall

Classification R; 111 minutes

Opens in theatres Nov. 5

Critic’s Pick

Director Pablo Larraín’s follow-up to Jackie is many things: a fashion-plate perfume commercial; the most expensive episode of The Crown ever directed; but mostly, it’s a brilliant vehicle for Kristen Stewart. By tapping into her own experiences of tortured celebrity during the Twilight dynasty, Stewart embodies Princess Diana at her peak of isolation and estrangement from the Royal Family as she’s forced to spend the Christmas holidays with them at Sandringham House in 1991.

Hiding out from the photographers, relatives and staff who stalk her from room to room, Spencer’s version of Diana personifies the People’s Princess as a delicate bird trapped in a gilded cage.

Diana longs for a permanent way out with her young sons Prince William and Harry in tow. (Her dilapidated childhood manor lies across the street from Sandringham, if she could only fetch the bolt cutters.) In hushed conversation with servants who insist that they don’t know anything, Diana is told what to wear, how to act and what to feel (especially about Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles) and is driven mad by her own feelings of paranoia and persecution. In retaliation, she weaponizes the only thing she has left – her body – as her days become an endless cycle of binging, purging and refusing to join her relatives for dinner.

Spencer’s version of Princess Diana personifies the People’s Princess as a delicate bird trapped in a gilded cage.Pablo Lorrain/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

A supporting cast employs many of Mike Leigh’s famous players, including Timothy Spall as a security guard, and Sally Hawkins as Maggie, Diana’s dresser and only confidante. With Hawkins, Stewart comes alive, tapping into a humanity that frees her from the film’s frequent angst.

Steven Knight’s screenplay, which structures Spencer as a series of antics that sees Diana behaving badly amid large formal set-pieces, does grow monotonous, especially since the Royal Family barely wants to engage with her. As the film veers into a psychological horror, Diana begins inflicting self-harm upon her body. “Fight them,” urges Maggie. “You are your own weapon.”

Helmed by a lesser filmmaker, Spencer could be a tonal mess. Yet Larraín has a knack for these handsomely fractured biopics, pitched between a Joan Crawford melodrama and museum art piece. Fine craftsmanship replicates many of Diana’s most iconic wardrobe pieces in fine detail, in addition to a stately score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, and 35mm handheld cinematography that languidly peers down hallways and into candlelit rooms. Tiny details, particularly around food, are exquisite: lamb shanks in mint jelly binge-eaten by Diana in a walk-in freezer, a bowl of pea-green soup into which Diana vomits beads of a freshwater pearl necklace after force-feeding herself Charles’ Christmas present. Not since Fanny and Alexander has a royal Christmas seemed so beatific, yet ghostly, as Diana also begins to see visions of the late Anne Boleyn haunting the hallways, who warns her of her own imminent death.

As wonderfully multivalent as Spencer is, screenwriter Knight (of Peaky Blinders and Serenity) is never able to put his finger on the ticking mechanism that fuels Diana’s fury and resolve. (“Mommy, what’s happened to make you so sad?” asks a young Prince William, in one of the film’s many lines of on-the-nose dialogue.) Popular culture is currently obsessed with the female martyrs of the 1990s, as if by giving women like Princess Diana, Britney Spears and Monica Lewinsky vehicles such as Spencer, Framing Britney Spears, and American Crime Story: Impeachment, we can redeem our repeated disavowal of their humanity.

Spencer works best when Princess Diana gets to be wickedly alive – playing a game with her sons, joking with Hawkins on the beach. When Stewart is given permission to play a person, not a dynasty, she offers up some of her best work yet.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.