Casting, Kristen StewartAs Princess DianaIt is brilliant and it ends in a convertible top. The rest of the story is a mystery. Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer”This is a hollow exercise at high camp.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Chilean director Larraín crafted another meditation of mythmaking in the similarly conceptual, “Jackie.”

The movie was also elegantly styled and featured a compelling lead performance by Natalie Portman, Jaqueline Kennedy, as well as a discordant, piercing score from Mica Levi. Again, this is an arch, but empathetic character study about persona in the midst of tragedy and fame.

“Jackie” had the prickly edges of a psychological thriller and draped itself in the memories of a grieving past.

“Spencer,” which opens in theaters Friday, is more like a ghost story — a dreamy, luxe version of “The Shining,” with the Overlook Hotel swapped for the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, where Princess Diana mostly wanders in isolation and suffocating unease.

When she sneaks out at night and guards come upon her with flashlights, Diana tells them, “Say you saw a ghost.”

Neon released this image of Kristen Stewart as a scene in “Spencer.”
Pablo Larrain/Neon via AP

It is often like that in “Spencer,” penned with too often on-the-nose poignancy by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Locke”). All things are in quotations Everything is symbolic and foreboding.

The year is 1991, six years before Diana’s death but at the height of her discord with the royal family. Diana is aware by now of Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles; this Christmas gathering was when she supposedly decided to end the marriage. In “Spencer,” the family already has its knives out for Diana. They’re blaming it on her.

“I’m a magnet for madness,” she says. “Other people’s madness.”

But it’s a while before Diana comes into contact with almost anyone. Larraín opens the film with an army cavalcade down a tree-lined road to Sandringham — heavy-duty preparations for the holiday.

All of the royal trappings in “Spencer” are militaristic and, we gather, potentially fatal for Diana. Her suspicious minder is a major (Timothy Spall) and the cook (Sean Harris) quotes the battle speech from “Henry V.” “Will they kill me?” Diana asks him, referring to the royal family.

Diana, however, makes a leisurely meandering in her convertible through the hills before she meets them. She enters a café to ask for directions.

She pretends to be the princess lost, and everyone stares at her. Diana stays alone after she has arrived late. “Spencer” includes brief appearances of Charles (Jack Farthing) and Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet), but Larraín’s film exists in a dreamy and stylish remove that is sketched entirely from Diana’s distraught interior. “Spencer” is introduced as “a fable from a true tragedy.”

In both “Jackie” and “Spencer,” Larraín deserves credit for so avoiding the expected biopic structure. (Some people have begun to question this). if he might next tackle Britney Spears(.)

Every portrait is exploratory and sensitive. But abstract, arty guesswork isn’t an especially revelatory substitution for biopic convention.

The drama is drawn so starkly — Diana as crushed by the traditions and restrictions of the evil royal family — that it falls into a repetitive volley of encounters with gossipy staff members (Sally Hawkins appears as Diana’s trusted maid), sweeter moments with her sons (played by Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry) and increasingly abstract scenes of Diana’s bulimia and her looming fate, with apparitions from Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson).

Stewart attends the Los Angeles premiere of "Spencer" on Oct. 26 in Los Angeles.
Stewart was present at the Los Angeles premiere for “Spencer” Oct. 26.
Amy Sussman via Getty Images

All of that sounds a bit stale. Not really, but “Spencer” — playful to the point of silliness at times — is so thickly symbolic that its tenuous relationship with any historical reality may be beside the point.

“Spencer,” really, might be more about Kristen Stewart than it is Princess Di. This casting is clever because of the many similarities between Stewart and Diana. Both young women are placed under the microscope, with their own celebrity burdens.

Some have praised the technicality of Stewart’s performance — the accent, the gestures — but, for me, the performance isn’t at all about transformation. You never for a moment forget that this is Stewart playing Diana, and you could very easily take all of Diana’s rebellions as Stewart’s own.

“Spencer” may be a let down as a story about Diana, but as an exaggerated portrait of Stewart, it’s magnetic.

“Spencer,” a Neon release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some language. Running time: 111 minute. Four stars: Two-and-a-half stars.


Share Your Comment Below


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here