As the late Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s gorgeous and surreal Spencer (now playing at the Harris Theater and the Tull Family Theater), Stewart is asked to do the heavy lifting in just about every scene. And despite being an actress who has been oft-criticized as one-note and wooden, here she uses her innate awkwardness and reserved nature to turn in by far the best work of her career.
Back to those shoulders. Every time we see Diana on screen, she feels as though she’s repelling from the world around her, and Stewart portrays that through her shoulders. She tenses up, recoiling away from everyone and everything that she’s asked to do. In one scene, she finally feels release, sneaking into the kitchen to eat away from the throngs, her well-documented eating disorder at bay, at least for a moment. Then she realizes she’s still being watched, by the eagle eye of Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), one of the Queen’s hires tasked with overseeing Di’s every move.
Instantly, we see those shoulders tighten, Diana reverting right back into her shell of anxiety, of justifiable paranoia. It’s one of many subtle moves Stewart makes throughout the film, and it works perfectly.
The plot of the film is more of a mixed bag. Set over Christmas weekend in 1991, Spencer tracks Diana, a decade into her doomed marriage to Prince Charles (played here by Jack Farthing), through a routine of stuffy dinners, photoshoots, and numerous outfit changes. It’s all very moody, concerned less with portraying real events than a sad fantasy (the film even contains a Coen-esque disclaimer at the beginning that says the film is a “fable from a true tragedy”).
What it does get right is its air of complete disconnect from the outside world that comes with being part of England's Royal Family. The film is absolutely gorgeous, all stunning tableaus of a ridiculously expansive compound, strange amounts of symmetry, and unnerving head-on camerawork, all set to Jonny Greenwood’s score humming incessantly in the background. It’s a lot, and it immerses the audience in with Diana in her anxiety, and her conviction that this is all a farce.
Spencer brings to mind multiple different Kubrick films. The setting of the Queen's Sandringham Estate recalls the isolation of The Overlook in The Shining, while the stunning imagery of Larrain’s direction screams Barry Lyndon. Here, however, the film uses its beauty to further underscore the pain of its subject. Diana is a real person trapped inside what is basically a painting.
Spencer drags some in its third act, stacking too many scenes on top of each other, all of which feel like they’re illustrating the same point, and hammering too much on an Anne Boleyn parable. But the film itself is a masterful showcase for an actress who clearly deserves our respect and a director who has an eye for the most beautiful parts of going to the movies. It’s all a little excessive, but so is the Royal Family.
Spencer is now playing at the Harris Theater (809 Liberty Ave., Downtown. trustarts.org) through Tue., Nov. 23 and at the Tull Family Theater (418 Walnut St., Sewickley. thetullfamilytheater.org) through Thu., Nov. 11.