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Pablo Larraín’s Spencer

Kristen Stewart in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021)

One of the most anticipated live events at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which opens today and runs through September 18, is Diana Sanchez’s conversation with Kristen Stewart. It’s slated for next Thursday, following Wednesday’s screenings of Spencer. Billed in an opening title as a “fable from a true tragedy,” Spencer is Pablo Larraín’s second study of a woman thrust by marriage into a searing global spotlight. The first was 2016’s Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy. The casting of Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales is “both such a counterintuitive and oddly apt choice,” as David Katz puts it at the Film Stage. Spencer arrives in Toronto from Venice trailing mostly positive reviews—with a few notable exceptions.

Telling herself that it will only be three days, Stewart’s Diana speeds along in a Porsche with the top down toward a Christmas holiday with the royal family on their Sandringham estate—not far from where she grew up as Diana Frances Spencer. It’s the early 1990s, and while the world doesn’t yet know about her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, Diana does. She arrives late, and the reception is anything but welcoming. “While some will no doubt reject Spencer as lurid psychodrama,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “the presentation of the royal family as a sinister body corporate, ready to inflict wounds and ice out any interloper who tarnishes their brand, is chillingly compelling.”

Writing for Screen, Jonathan Romney finds Stewart’s performance “brittle, tender, sometimes playful, and not a little uncanny.” In the New York Times, Kyle Buchanan notes that “it’s not really one-to-one accuracy that compels us while watching Spencer.” Stewart is “pulled toward Diana and Diana is pulled toward her.” Her casting, suggests Buchanan, “even seems like a meta stroke of genius: Stewart is one of the few people on the planet who has known paparazzi scrutiny that is even somewhat comparable to the fusillade of flashbulbs that hounded Diana until her death.” Stewart herself tells the Los Angeles TimesGlenn Whipp: “I definitely understand what it feels like to want human connection and actually, ironically, feel distanced by the amount that’s thrust at you.”

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin finds that Stewart “navigates this perilous terrain with total mastery, getting the voice and mannerisms just right but vamping everything up just a notch, in order to better lean into the film’s melodramatic, paranoiac, and absurdist swerves.” And “what thrillingly gutsy, seductive, uninhibited filmmaking this is.” Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight (Locke, Peaky Blinders) spin “the headlines and scandals into a full-blown Gothic nightmare, an opulent ice palace of a movie with shades of Rebecca at the edges and a pleasing bat-squeak of absurdity in its portrayal of the royals,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks.

But for Little White LiesDavid Jenkins, Knight’s screenplay is “problematic from the get-go, packed with lots of winking pop psychology and on-the-nose portent, and clearly written with future tragedy in mind. Its main infraction, though, is that it is often witless and banal, leaving Larraín and the actors to heroically milk the drama from a string of interactions that are either overstuffed with ‘meaning,’ or just deathly dull.” Time’s Stephanie Zacharek argues that “Larraín turns this Diana into exactly the thing the royal family accused the real-life Diana of being, a willful and pouty constant complainer.” Spencer’s Diana is “a wronged innocent who seems sadly hooked on her victim status. It’s supposed to read as vulnerability, but it looks a lot like megalomania, surely the exact opposite of what Larraín intended.”

Back on the other hand, Jessica Kiang writes a rave for the Playlist, pointing out that cinematographer Claire Mathon’s “gorgeous close-up camerawork often pushes in even closer, with sympathy so solicitous it becomes intrusive, and you have in almost any of the single shots of Stewart-as-Diana a whole encyclopedia of information about the way image is constructed, the way the world’s most looked-at women are observed as though owned by the people doing the looking.”

Spencer also gives us the second soundtrack of the year from Jonny Greenwood, the first being Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. David Rooney finds it “as bracing and risky as anything else in Larraín’s film, shifting from melodic piano and string themes early on into discordant free-form jazz or oppressive pipe organ passages as Diana’s self-possession unravels.” Spencer then goes out on a tune Greenwood didn’t compose. As Stewart tells Glenn Whipp, “as ’80s songs go, Mike + the Mechanics’ ‘All I Need Is a Miracle’ felt like an inspired choice for a footloose getaway. When Pablo played that song the first time for me, I started bawling. It’s almost like a John Hughes moment at the end of this movie. Like suddenly, the female protagonist is riding off into the sunset, and then we cut back to the lame ex-boyfriend, who’s a loser. It felt so triumphant.”

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