I can't say I was disappointed. I am not a fan of biopics, so my expectations were low. Pablo Larraín deserves credit for doing something different than the usual biopic. The story is limited to three days, December 24-26, 1991. There is no attempt to get every event of Diana's life into the movie, and that's a good thing. Spencer is a psychological study of a woman ... it happens that we know of this woman, we probably think we know a lot about her even though we've never met her, and the real-life events that helped make Diana who she was influence the portrait of her in the movie. But it's more psychology than it is a tale of royalty.
I've described a movie I might like. As I say, I'm not a lover of biopics, but Spencer isn't like most biopics, and I am not a lover of movies about royalty, but Spencer is more about Diana than it is about royalty. So why didn't I like it?
I like Kristen Stewart, and before this, I'd never seen a movie with Stewart that I didn't like. She was often the best thing in the movies I saw. Personal Shopper in particular showcased her abilities, not least because she's on screen for almost the entire movie. At the time, I wrote:
Stewart has to carry the film ... I'm hard pressed to remember more than a couple of minutes where she isn't on the screen. She has a way of underplaying that matches well with the movie, and if you aren't paying attention, you might think she's barely acting at all. But she holds our attention throughout, and draws us into her character, which means she's acting up a storm, only without actually acting up a storm. It's a very good performance.
Well, she is on screen for almost all of Spencer, and she underplays, and she's gotten her first Oscar nomination, and she's already won several awards for her performance here, and I'm happy for her, because she is a fine actress. But she is awful in Spencer. Some of it is the fault of the film's construction ... at the beginning of the film, Diana is going through an existential crisis that leaves her depressed, and at the end of the film, the only real change is that she has taken her first steps towards freeing herself of that crisis. But for most of the two hours, she is the same as she was when we first meet her. There's nothing that Stewart can latch onto to show she is capable of more than existential depression. Critic Mick LaSalle went to town on the movie:
It turns a natural talent into a mannered freak. It takes one of the most gifted screen actresses of her generation and casts her out to sea with nothing to hold onto but a hideous script that’s all attitude without depth or understanding.... Stewart is usually the most relaxed of performers, which allows her to follow the inspiration of the moment in her reactions. Here, watching her, one can almost feel her neck tense as she speaks every line. Again, not Diana’s tension, but Stewart’s.
Spencer is liked by many critics, and for all I know, Stewart will win that Oscar. I've seen four of the five nominees, and I'd put her at the bottom. And that's why I was disappointed, because Kristen Stewart is worth watching no matter the movie, but Spencer somehow squashes that.
One last thing: I made a note to say something about the music in the movie, which I'll do when I want to remember to praise something. And Jonny Greenwood has gotten a lot of positive attention for his work here. But I honestly can no longer remember why I made that note to myself, and I only saw Spencer two days ago. Blame it on my old age, I guess.