Why ‘Spencer,’ starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, is no biopic


Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Filmmaker Chloé Zhao is following up her intimate “Nomadland,” which won three Oscars including director and picture, with the large-scale Marvel action-adventure epic “Eternals,” featuring a cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani and Brian Tyree Henry. Unlike other pictures from the MCU, the tension in “Eternals” between Zhao’s artisanal impulses and the industrial practices of superhero filmmaking motivates the movie as much as whatever whatsit the characters are after.

Christi Carras wrote about what makes Zhao’s involvement in the film so unique. As Zhao said at last month’s premiere, “I had this idea that we were able to capture the most grand, epic, cosmic moments — but also the tiniest, intimate moments on Earth. And that juxtaposition allows audiences to explore our relationship with the cosmos and our planet.”

In reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The Eternals’ onscreen struggle, pitting them against the whims of a grimly authoritarian overlord, too precisely mirrors their relationship to the Disney/Marvel corporate apparatus that created them and that will exploit them until their potential is exhausted. What initially seemed fresh and invigorating devolves into something you’ve seen countless times before: The fate of the world hinges on an epic burst of teamwork, as well as one character’s perfunctory realization of long-suppressed potential. Longtime friends betray and forgive each other, and eyes and hands shoot bolts of gilded lightning. A rush of end-credits cliffhangers elicits gasps from the audience, and the final title card — ‘Eternals will return’ — starts to sound less like a promise than a threat. You walk out in the depressing realization that you’ve just seen one of the more interesting movies Marvel will ever make, and hopefully the least interesting one Chloé Zhao will ever make.”


Tracy Brown spoke to Hayek about being cast in the film. She said, “I was very surprised. A superhero? Me? It was so confusing … I couldn’t understand how I got there. It’s like all your dreams coming true.”

One of the highlights of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, “Beans,” is finally getting a U.S. release, available on demand and playing in Los Angeles at the Lumiere Cinema. The fiction feature debut of documentarian Tracey Deer, the film tells the semi-autobiographical story of the three-month Oka Crisis standoff in 1990 and the anti-Indigenous racism it stirred up through the eyes of a Mohawk teenager known as Beans, played in a stirring performance by Kiawentiio.

I’ve written about French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve numerous times over the years, and her latest, “Bergman Island,” remains one of my favorite films of this year. Her first feature, 2007’s “All Is Forgiven,” has nevertheless been hard to see in America. NYC’s Metrograph is playing the film in its theater now and on its streaming platform from Nov. 6 to 18.

And with Jane Campion’s new film, “The Power of the Dog,” coming out soon, the Academy Museum in Los Angeles has begun a retrospective of her films, from early shorts onward, with a series titled “You Oughta Know: The Films of Jane Campion.” This is a rare chance to see these on the big screen (most all in 35 mm prints), and pretty much every one is a triumph. I have somehow convinced myself that the screening of the 2003 erotic thriller “In the Cut,” an examination of identity and desire, at 9:30 on a Friday night will be a demented party scene where at least one reckless love affair will be launched. Please, world, make it so.

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Directed by Pablo Larraín from a screenplay by Steven Knight, “Spencer” is an enigmatic portrait of Princess Diana over a few days in December 1991. With a transportive lead performance from Kristen Stewart, the film is more mood piece than straight biopic, creating a feeling of dislocation and isolation as Diana is increasingly distanced from the royal family and its arcane protocols and traditions. The film is now in general release.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “All this might have made ‘Spencer’ seem repetitive at best and exploitative at worst. Instead, it’s freed Larraín and Knight from any obligation to be comprehensive or definitive, much less adhere to the art-deadening conventions of the prestige Hollywood biopic. Why consign a heroine of Diana’s iconic stature and expressive power to one genre? The royal family’s travails have long been likened to those of a soap opera, but ‘Spencer,’ even as it achieves the emotional extravagance of a first-rate melodrama, refuses to be hemmed in. It’s a historical fantasia, a claustrophobic thriller and a dark comedy of manners, all poised on a knife’s edge between tabloid trash and high art. … No less important, this is Kristen Stewart, reluctant Hollywood royalty incarnate, hurling herself into the kind of dazzling celebrity-as-celebrity star turn that reduces co-stars to commoners and sets Oscar prognosticators swooning.”

Times writers Mary McNamara and Meredith Blake had a conversation about the film and its relationship to the royal family and other recent depictions of life among the royals in popular culture that will be publishing soon.

As Mary put it, “What I liked best about Stewart’s performance was her refusal to sanctify Diana. Her princess is just as bratty and stubborn as she is dismissed and mistreated. With the lovely exception of her relationship with her sons, she seems unwilling to live within the specific reality she has chosen — an arranged marriage with a future monarch — and the more universal one — turns out her husband loves someone else. And even for the sake of her sons, she is incapable of doing what many have done — grit your teeth and get through Christmas with your horrible in-laws the best you can so the kids enjoy it.”

Meredith agrees with Mary’s assertion of “Spencer” as “an anti-holiday film” by declaring, “You’ve made me rethink ‘Spencer’ completely. Here I thought it was ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ meets ‘Downton Abbey,’ while it’s actually just a (more) nightmarish ‘The Family Stone.’”

Glenn Whipp spoke to Larraín and Stewart for another story publishing soon (including about the playlist of songs Larraín used on set for the extended montage, toward the end of the film, of Diana dancing). On capturing Diana’s manner of speaking and interacting with others, Stewart said, “I’ve spent a lot of time in and out of the U.K. with British people. And I’ve always been a little bit slow on the uptake, because the quick, casual, disarming — what could be construed as catty — communication is just not my strong suit. I am a very stand-and-deliver, straight-up motherf—. But Diana was talented at it. It was embedded in her. She could turn passive-aggressive communication into an art form.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “’Spencer’ is a companion piece to ‘Jackie,’ Larraín’s 2016 film about Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Both movies examine the isolation and paranoia of a woman at the mercy of political forces and family interests beyond her control, and turn on the heroine’s attempt at resistance. ‘Spencer’ seems to me the more coherent film, partly because the directness of Stewart’s performance stands out so poignantly against the moral vacuity and aesthetic constipation of her surroundings. … The intimacy and care the character craves is something the audience feels compelled to supply. Our sympathy is more than pity, and ‘Spencer’ is more than the portrait of a woman in distress. If it’s a fable, it’s a political fable, an allegory of powerlessness, revolt and liberation.”

For Reverse Shot, Simran Hans wrote, “The bombastic symbolism shouldn’t work. And yet each time the film dispenses with decorum, Larraín’s troublemaking intentions rise to the surface, a middle finger to the received protocol of respectfully representing the Royals. … It’s telling that when we first meet Diana, she’s driving. This image, of Diana behind the wheel, bookends the film. It was being chauffeured that killed her. In the car, racing back to London, with William and Harry in the back seat, Mike + the Mechanics’ 1985 pop hit ‘All I Need Is a Miracle’ blares from the stereo. Diana drives herself off into the sunset, freer than she’s ever been. Larraín’s alternate ending has her speeding away from her demise, not toward it.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “‘Spencer’ is as precise and intricate as a luxury timepiece, each piece fitting together perfectly, no matter how small. … It’s impossible not to like the movie’s version of Diana, who’s simply incapable of stiff-upper-lipping her way through her own misery, too guileless about sharing her emotions and about assuming everyone around her is being just as straightforward. Stewart might not look much like the actual woman, but she’s capable of re-creating a sense of her sunshine-bright charisma, the way she felt a little too much like a star for a royal set accustomed to always being gazed at while never so gauche as to do anything to merit it. Diana, with her glamorous gowns and her taste for fast food, may be forever too much and not enough, but ‘Spencer’ is just right.”

A young woman sits at a table bathed in sunlight streaming through a window.
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in the movie “Spencer.”

‘The Beta Test’

The Beta Test” is co-directed by, co-written by and co-stars Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe. Cummings has become one of the most prolific and vital new voices in American independent filmmaking of the last few years, exploring wounded white masculinity with both empathy and scalpel-sharp precision. The comedic thriller “The Beta Test” continues that examination by turning back onto the entertainment industry itself, as Cummings and McCabe play agents at a small firm attempting to take down a bigger agency. After Jordan (Cummings) receives an envelope promising a no-strings-attached sexual encounter of his fantasies, his entitlement begins to unravel. The film is available in theaters and on demand.

For The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “‘The Beta Test’ hinges on Cummings’ magnetically deranged turn. A remarkable actor when playing individuals unraveling, as showcased in his breakout ‘Thunder Road’ and last year’s ‘The Wolf of Snow Hollow,’ he swims in familiar waters but does so with a singularly expressive face that reads anxious, charming and off-putting all in one gesture. He’s mastered the art of losing his cool on camera, first causing one to laugh at his over-the-top interpretation of pain before recognizing its revealing truth. It helps, of course, that he writes the very dialogue his character deploys like a verbal arsenal of intriguing awkwardness.”

For the Guardian, Leslie Felperin wrote, “Cummings and McCabe powder the script’s shiny, mirrored surface with lots of snort-worthy mentions of the recent dispute between the Writers’ Guild and Hollywood’s biggest agencies, as well as references to the industry’s collective shame over what ‘Harvey’ did. (Like horror cinema’s Jason or Freddy, Weinstein is now a single-monikered monster.) And yet Jordan is still a class-A asshole to those who work under him, while shamelessly sucking up to the talent. It’s a study in smarm to watch him use the same hackneyed cliches over and over again — there’s a great montage of him talking about how ‘excited’ he is about every project, like a Pointer Sister on meth. All the black comedy is terrific; the stuff about Jordan hunting down who sent the invitation for the hook-up is less, well, exciting.”

For IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote, “It’s no surprise that ‘The Beta Test’ ultimately considers the existential threat that it poses to its protagonist as an opportunity in disguise. Cummings is a DIY raconteur whose ‘Thunder Road’ turned a profit by circumventing traditional channels of distribution, and most people in the indie film community are probably more familiar with his relentless social media presence than with the movies he seeks to promote through it. The delirious fun of his latest feature — and the secret to how it maintains such an irrepressible thrum of urgency even when it spreads itself far too thin, which is always — is that Cummings has found a roadworthy vehicle for his offscreen obsessions. … In the end, agents like him are just another dying social network, so pathologically obsessed with their own survival that they forget what they wanted from this life in the first place.”

A man standing in front of post office boxes looks nervously over one shoulder.
Jim Cummings as Jordan in his and PJ McCabe’s “The Beta Test.”
(IFC Films)

‘7 Prisoners’

Written and directed by Alexandre Moratto, with Ramin Bahrani and Fernando Meirelles credited as producers, “7 Prisoners” is a view on exploitation and oppression set in modern-day Brazil. A young man, Mateus (Christian Malheiros), moves to São Paulo and soon finds himself entrapped in a form of indentured servitude underneath Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), desperate to find a way out. The film is in theaters now and will begin streaming Nov. 11 on Netflix.

For The Times, Noel Murray wrote, “The movie’s plot is a little thin, and its message quite blunt. The more Mateus cozies up to Luca, the more he realizes that both he and his captor are caught up in a system that thrives by pitting working folks against each other while insulating the powerful from the inhumane ways they run their businesses. But while ‘7 Prisoners’ doesn’t pack many surprises, it is remarkably well drawn, featuring gripping performances and a vividly squalid setting. It captures the hopelessness of these men, trapped in a city where even the authorities who might help have no idea they exist — and no incentive for finding them.”

For Variety, Guy Lodge wrote, “Moratto’s film, heart-quickening as it is, wants for the character-based subtlety and sensitivity of his debut [‘Socrates’]. It immerses us so deeply in the ‘what would you do’ aspect of its storytelling that what they do, and why, gets shorter shrift. Still, ‘7 Prisoners’ unfolds satisfyingly, precisely by not offering us complete satisfaction or certainty. The question hovers of whether Mateus can ever escape his prison altogether, or merely into one with more comfortable furniture.”

Two men hurry away from a van.
Rodrigo Santoro, left, and Christian Malheiros in the 2021 drama “7 Prisoners.”
(Aline Arruda / Netflix)