Kristen Stewart’s trajectory is curious. For years, she was a hardworking, even efficient, child actress in films such as 2002’s “The Panic Room” —in which Jodie Foster’s daughter lived—. Twilight” is almost a manual of what an actress shouldn’t do on stage.
But something inexplicable happened after Frenchman Olivier Assayas directed her in 2014’s “Above the Clouds,” and, since then, Stewart has not only been a highly talented actress but also one of the best of her generation. His latest work, in “Spencer”, shown this Thursday (3) at the Venice Film Festival, is just one more proof of how elastic his ability to transform on stage is.
She plays Princess Diana in a movie that doesn’t care too much about historical facts. From the beginning, we are warned by a sign that the film is “a fable based on a tragic story”. The plot takes place in an interval of three days, in the celebration of an imaginary Christmas, in a country castle of the English royal family, when Lady Di and Prince Charles were no longer sleeping together.
To say that she reluctantly attends the event is an understatement; in fact, facing those three days is a martyrdom for Diana. The actress has a special accent on her accent and uses her own natural disposition to bend her spine in favor of the character —Di wasn’t exactly an erect woman either.
Physically, Stewart looks a lot like Naomi Watts when featured to play the princess in 2013’s unsuccessful “Diana,” but in no second does the viewer doubt that she is Di, in her eternal misery and her hunger for freedom.
“The more I looked [imagens de] Diana, the more I saw how much she had mystery and magnetism, which are essential attributes of a film”, explained Pablo Larraín, the film’s director, to the press in Venice. “Kristen has this mystery, which is not understood. And I find it interesting when cinema does that — it allows the audience to complete this process of understanding.”
Stewart said he was always impressed by Diana’s “pervasive energy.” “One sad thing about her was that there was this normal girl thing, but she was very isolated, alone. I desperately wanted to have a connection with other people.”
Larraín opts for a photograph —by the Frenchwoman Claire Mathon— in pink and pearly tones, which soften the gray ugliness of the English countryside. It’s as if the director wants to reinforce the idea that it’s a make-believe world—as if he were going to tell the story of a princess trapped in a castle.
And the movie is basically that. Exposing how oppressive the royal family is, how much they watched over Di all the time, how much they forced her to make small decisions—like what clothes to wear—that for Diana were enormous violence. Between bouts of bulimia and a constant urge to run away, the film presents her as a highly unhappy woman.
In other words, it shows what everyone knew – or at least imagined – about the complicated relationship between Diana and the British crown. And the film spends most of its duration repeating, scene after scene, this same idea, that Di was an ordinary woman, caged in by royal tradition. It brings absolutely nothing new about it.
Steven Knight’s script has some especially bad ideas, like getting Diana talking to an old jacket, or interacting with the ghost of Anne Boleyn, or telling a stray bird things like, “You should be flying free around.” .
It is not a material that matches the intelligence of Larraín, who until then had never taken a false step in his career — his last feature, “Ema”, was not exactly a success, but at least there he was groping for something new and for times came very close to getting it right.
Five years ago, the Chilean seemed a highly inadequate choice to direct a film about Jacqueline Kennedy, but he surprised half the world when he made “Jackie” one of the most stimulating features of 2016. The feat opened doors for him, but perhaps it gave him self-confidence too much, to the point of thinking that a script as limited as “Spencer” could be saved in the direction.
The film’s Diana suffers from not holding up to the force of royal tradition, but she doesn’t have much to offer as another life option. She likes pop culture and fast food, which is a vision that could bring her even closer to the public, who has always had her as an idol. But sometimes she seems more like a futile girl, sometimes annoyed, than the “mysterious woman” that Larraín says he sees in the real Diana.
In the final stretch, however, there is a small scene that shakes the film and almost takes it out of its vegetative state, with a revelation made by the chambermaid experienced by the always excellent Sally Hawkins.
The film gains a transgressive element, which frees “Spencer” from the affected prostration in which he had been until then, but the problem is that this deviation comes too late. The impression that remains is that of an uneventful film, which does not do justice to the talents involved or the character that inspired it.