By John H. Foote
In 2016, Pablo Larraín brought his film Jackie to TIFF, a haunting film about Jackie Kennedy in the moments, hours, days and weeks after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Portraying Jackie in the year’s greatest performance was Natalie Portman. She masterfully captured that whispery voice, that shell-shocked look we saw in newspapers and on TV, the look of a woman dazed by life-altering events that could never be private because of who she was.
Portman was astonishing in the film, utterly becoming Jackie; within seconds I was not watching an actress, I was watching Jackie as her life unfolded. Perhaps because she is gone, taken far too early, it often feels like watching a ghost story, but we must never forget this vital woman was very much alive and full of love.
His new film Spencer offers a similar look at Princess Diana, set during the Christmas weekend when she made the decision to leave her marriage, divorce Prince Charles and give up her titles and duties to the Royal Family. One of the most loved and impossibly famous women on the planet, Diana was hailed as the People’s Princess and the Royals hated her celebrity. The Queen quietly seethed about the constant coverage of Diana, her every move, her work in Africa, her devotion to victims of AIDS and her humble touch with the ordinary people who loved her. But this controversial woman was a bird in a cage and could no longer stand being humiliated by her husband flaunting his mistress. She did not want his shameful adultery to be the message sent to her young sons.
The great revelation of Spencer is that Diana is portrayed uncannily by Kristen Stewart, the girl from Twilight who fell in love with a vampire before becoming one herself. Stewart was mercilessly attacked in her early career for shunning the spotlight; she hated that fame and photographers had to be part of the package. There were unfair comments about phoned-in performances, taking the big pay cheques without the work. Her affair with a married director threw her into a terrible light in the press, who attacked the girl like a vulture (of course, he took little heat in the matter). In fairness, she was very young and made a mistake. He was older, married, and should have known better. The harpies who call themselves photographers descended upon her in droves, so she shut down to reporters during interviews. Clearly, she has an inkling of what Diana was dealing with. I am not suggesting the actress had the worldwide fame of Diana, or was anywhere near as beloved, but she understands fame and has been the subject of the punishment that comes with it.
In the last five years she gave a number of acclaimed performances, the finest being the quiet ghost story Personal Shopper (2016). But what she does here as Diana is an extraordinary performance that is fast becoming an event. There is no question Stewart will be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. If she is not, a seismic event could take place that might forever ruin the Academy’s fickle credibility.
How surprising is she in this? Think Mo’Nique in Precious (2009) or more recently, Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (2018) — so entirely unexpected. We could go back even further to Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon (1973) or Al Pacino in The Godfather (1972). Clearly no one expected this kind of artistry from Stewart. This is a major performance, a performance that goes beyond mere acting and manages to illuminate her character’s heartache and shattering loneliness. Stewart does not look much like Diana and is much smaller in height and build. but like Portman in Jackie, within seconds, I was no longer watching an actress.
There are shots where, with a mere tilt of the head, the actress looks strikingly like Diana. Where she really soars is how she captures the wounded spirit of Diana. With stunning cinematic language, Larraín shows us with his camera just how tiny Diana is within the royal machine, her puny car driving into the massive estate for the holiday, the extraordinary rooms and size within the castle, the dinner, the parties, all of which dwarf this woman in what is supposed to be her family. As far as I am concerned, the Royals were as much to blame for this lovely woman’s death as the inebriated driver who sped into a wall. They were there in that tunnel the night she died because had they treated her with an ounce of kindness, like a daughter-in-law, like a friend, she might have stayed. And that Prince Charles, that entitled pompous ass, is portrayed here, rightly so, as a swine. His mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, behaves with arrogance and smugness to Diana. In one telling scene, Charles gives his mistress the exact same gift as his wife receives, a string of pearls.
The only time we see her carefree and happy is with her boys, whom she adored, and her assistant, portrayed with admiration and love by Sally Hawkins, who sees the Royals for what they are. The Queen, that great symbol of England’s past and present, is so annoyed with Diana she attaches a former high-ranking policeman to watch her every move and keep her in line. Timothy Spall gives this character an insidious presence the moment we see him. Did it happen? I expect so. Nothing was beyond the Royals in protecting their legacy. Nothing.
Larraín portrays with startling realism a different kind of grief than he did in Jackie but does it with equal brilliance. We see and understand how Diana could exist in such an opulent and massive place and yet feel the walls closing in day by day, knowing she had to make a decision that was going to throw the Royals into a panic, a decision that could potentially place her life in peril. She never counted on the love of the British people, their support, their admiration for her and the fact they knew exactly what she was going through. “The People’s Princess”, “England’s Rose”—she was many things to many people, but most of all she was a mother with a compassion and empathy for anyone in need, who always had time to stop and shake hands and speak with the people, who made Britain proud everywhere she went.
Except the Royals, who seethed in jealously.
Through the entire film my eyes were on Stewart, who inhabits Diana from the first frame through the last with grace and humility. She captures everything important and soulful about this woman, including the inner steel required to weather the storm that would come (and did) when she left the marriage. Though broken and wounded, she got out before they could destroy her, and is forever remembered as being beloved by the people. An astonishing performance from Stewart, one for the ages and the absolute one to beat for the Academy Award as Best Actress.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.