A distant poetic investigation of Princess Diana
Spencer is the next film by director Pablo Lorrain, coming off the heels of Jackie, he seems to be carving a niche of films about women dealing with the traumas and horrors of fame and inherited royalty. This time the film plays incredibly distant, poetic and even vacant at times. This is not a film meant to entertain, more of a mood piece. So, for those looking for a straight-line narrative and a typical conflict and resolution may be left wanting and completely disappointed by its, well, daydream /nightmarish qualities.
Let’s begin with the central plot, which again is incredibly thin. This film takes place over a few days around Christmas festivities in the Royal family, Princess Diana played incredibly by Kirsten Stewart (more on that below) is dealing with many, many issues. Some psychological, some emotional and some physical. These elements are the best parts of this film. The way the film portrays anxiety, depression, loneliness, constriction, containment and especially self-inflicted pain and the horror of eating disorders is raw and feels real. Many elements really drive this home. The visuals, score, and performances.
Let’s work our way up. The visuals of this picture are simply stunning and gorgeous, the cinematography by Claire Mathon is oh so pretty. Maybe it’s the film grain offered by the 16mm and 35mm that it is shot on. Or maybe it’s the bright and washed out seemingly expired quality of its colors. The soft subdued ghastly focus that it has. The way the camera is framed and composed is what I live for as a film lover. And the moments of extreme proximity at the heights of anxiety all feel well earned and captivating visually. With her work here and her previous work with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Mathon is surely a rising star of visual brilliance.
The next element of brilliance is the score by Johnny Greenwood. His scores have long been of immense interest to me as a diehard Radiohead fan, his previous work with Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread specifically) are to die for. And the work that Greenwood does here outperforms all his previous efforts by miles. Whether it’s the small flairs of jazz and piano, or the sharp and deadly strings that complete a small and horrifying orchestra like sound. His work here is bar none (so far) the best score of 2021, yes even topping Hans Zimmer’s Dune, when we see princess Diana spiral into anxiety it’s the score that really gets under our skin. The strings almost tearing and lashing out at us with wincing effect. I loved every single second of it.
Which brings us of course to the star of this picture. Kirsten Stewart. She is transformative in this role. It was quite stunning to see her completely disappear into the woman that is Diana. And Stewart captures her such elegance and such repressed pain. The moments of Diana’s panic, or mania, or depressive outbursts are shocking to see, and its all done with such minimal ease. This isn’t the loud screaming shouting performance that I think most would do, its very internal and under her skin. This led to me really connect with her and her struggles. I felt her loss of freedom and childhood joy and the pressures of all those wanting you to be who you are not, and it hit me emotionally. I will be shocked if she doesn’t get nominated for best actress in the Oscars, and personally offended if she doesn’t win.
Some of the final elements I want to bring up is the spectacular costume designs in the film. Each outfit it stunning and meticulous and somehow display layers of Diana’s emotional state. The sets are fantastic. And the sound design yet sparse is interesting in the way it highlights silences with faint ambience. The supporting cast all does well.
The last thing I want to bring up is the only real problem of the picture which is the screenplay of the film. The majority of it is brilliant in the way it positions Diana against the family and the intense focus on her perspective of the entire situation and the way it dives deeply into her psyche. But something about it feels unsatisfactory by the end. I think this story fails to have any sort of cathartic emotional payoff. It does have moments of beautiful cathartic release, but there isn’t a huge payoff. And I think that may just be how the film was written, edited and directed on purpose. It feels much more like a mood piece and character study. But for my personal taste, and I believe the taste of many, will leave this picture with a feeling of emptiness and disappointment as it doesn’t have that strong momentum pushing this narrative forward.
So, in ending.
8/10 – Great
Pablo Lorrain’s film about Princess Diana is at times jaw dropping with its immensely emotional score, subdued washed out bright visual palette, and a performance by Kirsten Stewart that is both transformative and emotionally raw. But at other times, the film is a difficult watch, the daydream / nightmare mood piece feel of the film leaves a lot to be desired in the central narrative. If you are a fan of quiet, slow, aesthetic focused mood-pieces, this will be for you. But if you’re looking for a film with a huge emotional payoff, it disappoints. Still a worthwhile watch for the brilliant Score and beautiful, beautiful performance from Stewart