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Review: 'Spencer' a haunting portrayal of an imprisoned soul

Posted at 10:25 AM, Nov 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-05 10:25:41-04

(WXYZ) — Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.

Believe the hype: It's almost unimaginable to think that Kristen Stewart won't win an Oscar for her nuanced, powerful portrayal as Princess Diana, in Pablo Larrain's haunting fable, "Spencer."

Grade: A-

We all know that the life story of Diana, Princess of Wales (born Diana Spencer), is a tragedy. "Spencer" is an exploration that takes us deep into her psyche, examining the tremendous pain and pressure she endured while also celebrating her strength and grace.

Kristen Stewart gives a career-best performance, melting away into the role with the help of an immaculate team of make-up, hair and costume artists surrounding her. She is asked to carry the weight of the story in her every expression, and Stewart does much more than impersonate Princess Di, she embodies her.

One small problem with "Spencer" is that even though it obviously features all real people, it admits that the events portrayed in this film are completely fictitious. This might seem like loose creative license and reason to be cautious, but it's actually what frees "Spencer" up to become the visual and thematic masterpiece that it is. Larrain ponders what it must have been like to be Princess Diana, and the slice of her life that he shows us gives us an intimate insight as to what she was up against internally and externally with the Royal Family.

When we first meet Diana in this film, she is lost. It's an early sign that Diana is going in a different direction than the rest of the Royals, and symbolizes how far removed she is from their way of life. During Christmas in 1991, the Family did retreat to Queen Elizabeth's Sandringham Estate for a weekend full of festivities and a bit of hunting. Diana and her husband Prince Charles (a cold and unreachable Jack Farthing) are completely estranged at this point, and the film imagines what life was like for Diana over the course of the getaway.

Stewart if a gifted actress, but she's never quite transformed the way she does as Princess Di. She is a tortured soul, who clearly does not fit in with all of the pomp and circumstance of a Royal life. She relates to Anne Boleyn, a former Queen who was beheaded by the King and is known often as being gravely misunderstood. She rebels against the monarchy in minor ways at first, showing up late or not wearing what might be expected of her. Her two sons, Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry) are the only shining beacons in her life, and the film shows how easily she slips into the role of mother...these are the only moments of pure happiness and the only times that life comes easy to Diana. Her children are her everything, and its the moments with the children where Di is truly free.

In many ways, "Spencer" plays like a prison break movie. Diana grapples with a pearl necklace in the film - shackled around her neck like a chain. It's the same necklace given from Prince Charles to his supposed mistress. She needs desperately to break free, and given that the events of this film never really happened, Larrain is able to give her a great escape.

Much of the monarchy is portrayed as stuffy old codgers, but there are some grand supporting performances from Timothy Spall as antagonist Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, and by Sally Hawkins and Sean Harris, the only two people inside the Estate - a hair-dresser and a chef, respectively - whom Diana sees as allies.

It's a moody, dreamy film with a beautiful score and cinematography. Stewart absolutely captivates us, in the same way that Diana did. "Spencer" may not work for everyone, but it gives Diana her due. We know how the story ends, but "Spencer" allows us to imagine a world where Diana wins, rising above and riding into the sunset to the beat of her own drum. Dare to dream.

Grade: A-
Genre: Drama, Biography
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Rated R
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Freddie Spry, Jack Nielen, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Stella Gonet, Sally Hawkins, Amy Manson
Directed by Pablo Larrain ("Jackie," "Neruda," "The Club").