By Jason Osiason
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain crossed over into the states with “Jackie”, his discursive 2016 biopic about Jackie Kennedy. That film was about an American female icon who strived behind the scenes to rewrite the pages of history in a world where all authors are men. Larrain applies a similar premise to Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales to wildly mixed results.
Kristen Stewart, in what may be considered stunt-casting, throws herself into the role of Diana, with quivering posture and a pouty accent. It’s an admirably bold performance albeit divisive. This version of Diana is less a character than a mural for Larrain to paint anxiety and panic. While his tools and paintbrushes are lavishing (Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy and jangly score raises hair and cinematographer Claire Mathon has an exquisite favorability for moody colors), the creation feels misguided. The film announces itself immediately with spooky, symmetric frames that recall Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson and an off-kilter introduction of a literally lost Diana on the side of a street, then proceeds to play that same note for the remaining two hours. Screenwriter Steven Knight’s overt screenplay is a parade of metaphors that become literal and dialogue better suited as a plot summary (culminating in an eye-rolling and obvious final line)–more interested in depicting Diana and her many triggered traumas such as bulimia than exploring her beyond those reactions. Dark humor is mined from the natural ridiculousness of high society and the Royals but they’re too often presented as obstacles for Diana and anxiety signifiers. The film’s greatest moments are the grace notes of Diana playing with her two children, Stewart illuminating paternal warmth in an otherwise mannered and orchestrated performance that doesn’t offer other nuances. While the setpiece of Diana feeling daggers and leers around the dinner table is a gripping sequence, Larrain’s grasp at surrealism with Diana hallucinating juxtaposed visions of Anne Boleyn flirts with tastelessness and desperation.
Billed as a “fable”, “Spencer” is a gutsy twist on the biopic genre that disappointingly comes across too narrow-minded and insistent to be effective. [C+]