In 2016, Pablo Larraín brought to TIFF his film ‘Jackie’, a haunting film about Jackie Kennedy in the seconds, moments, hours, days and weeks after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Portraying Jackie in her finest and the year’s greatest performance was Natalie Portman. Capturing that whispery voice, that shell shocked look we saw in newspapers and on TV, the look of a woman dazed by life-altering events that could never be private because of who she was, and who her husband was. Portman was astonishing in the film, disappearing under the skin of Jackie Kennedy, and within seconds I was not watching an actress portray her, I was watching Jackie’s life unfold. Perhaps because she is gone, taken far too early, it often feels like watching a ghost story, but we must never forget this vital woman was very much alive and full of love.

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His new film, ‘Spencer’ offers a look at the Christmas weekend when Princess Diana decided to leave her marriage, divorce Prince Charles and give up her titles and duties to the Royal Family. One of the most loved and impossibly famous women on the planet, Diana was hailed as the People’s Princess and the Royals hated her celebrity. The Queen quietly seethed about the constant coverage of Diana, her every move, her work in Africa, her devotion to victims of AIDS and her humble touch with the ordinary people who loved her for who she was. But the poor girl was a bird in a cage, and could no longer stand being humiliated by her husband flaunting his mistress in front of her. She did not want his shameful adultery to be the message sent to her young sons.

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The great revelation of ‘Spencer’ is that Diana is portrayed uncannily by Kristen Stewart, the girl from ‘Twilight’ who fell in love with a vampire before becoming one herself. Stewart was attacked without a shred of mercy in her early career for shunning the spotlight, she hated that fame and photographers had to be part of the package. There were unfair comments that phoned in performances, taking the big pay cheques without the work, which were just unkind. Her affair with a married director threw her into a terrible light in the press, who attacked the girl like a vulture (wasn’t he the married one?). It was none of the business of the press, she was very young and made a mistake. He was older, married, and should have known better. Yet incredibly she took the heat, so unfair. It brought the harpies that call themselves photographers out in droves on the poor young woman, and she shut down to reporters during interviews. So she knows and understood some of what Diana was dealing with. I am not suggesting the actress had the worldwide fame of Diana or was anywhere near as beloved, but for a few precious moments, she was among the most recognized faces on the planet. For at least a while Stewart’s fame was equal to Diana’s though thankfully, Stewart eventually broke free of it. In the last five years, she has given several acclaimed performances, the finest being the quiet ghost story ‘Personal Shopper’ (2016) in which she is superb. But what she does here as Diana is revelatory, an extraordinary performance that has become or is fast becoming an event. There is no question Stewart will be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. If she is not, a seismic event could take place that might forever ruin the Academy’s fickle credibility.

What kind of breakthrough is this??

Think Monique in ‘Precious’ (2009) or more recently Lady Gaga in ‘A Star is Born’ (2018), so entirely unexpected, we could back even further to Tatum O’Neal in ‘Paper Moon’ (1973) or Al Pacino in ‘The Godfather’ (1972). No one expected this kind of artistry from Stewart. This is a major performance, a performance that goes beyond mere acting and manages to stroke our souls with her heartache and shattering portrayal of loneliness.

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Stewart does not look much like Diana and is much smaller in height and build. but like Portman in ‘Jackie’ within seconds I was no longer watching an actress, Stewart had allowed Diana’s broken soul to merge with her own. There are shots that, with a mere tilt of the head, the actress looks strikingly like Diana. Where she soars into the heavens is capturing the wounded soul of Diana and painting her as she does. With stunning cinematic language Lorrain shows us with his camera just how tiny Diana is within the royal machine, her puny car driving into the massive estate for the holiday, the extraordinary rooms and size within the castle, the dinner, the parties, all of which dwarf this woman in what is supposed to be among her family. As far as I am concerned the Royals were as much to blame for this lovely woman’s death as anyone else. They were there in that tunnel the night she died because had they treated her with an ounce of kindness, like a daughter in law, as a friend, she might have stayed. And that Prince Charles, that entitled pompous ass is portrayed here, rightly so as a swine. His mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles behaves with arrogance and smugness to Diana that should have got her a punch in the nose. Instead, Charles hurts his wife by giving his mistress the same gift as his wife receives, a string of pearls.

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The only time we see her carefree and happy is with her boys, whom she adored, and her assistant, portrayed with admiration and love by Sally Hawkins, who sees the Royals for what they are. The Queen, that great symbol of England’s past and present is so annoyed with Diana she attaches a former high ranking policeman to watch her every move and keep her in line. Timothy Spall gives this character, an insidious presence the moment we see him. Did it happen? I expect so. Nothing was beyond the Royals in protecting their legacy. Nothing!

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Larraín portrays with startling realism a different kind of grief than he did in ‘Jackie’ and does it with equal brilliance. We see and understand how Diana could exist in such an opulent and massive place and yet feel the walls closing in day by day, knowing she had to make a decision that was going to throw the Royals into a panic, a decision that could potentially place her life in peril. She never counted on the love of the British people, their support, their admiration for her and the fact they knew exactly what she was going through. “The People’s Princess”, “England’s Rose” she was many things to many people, but most of all she was a mother with compassion and empathy for anyone in need, who always had time to stop and shake hands and speak with the people, who make Britain proud everywhere she went. Except for the Royals, who seethed in jealously.

Throughout the entire film, my eyes were on Stewart, who inhabits Diana from the first frame through the last with grace and humility. She captures everything important and soulful about this woman, including the steel underneath to weather the storm that would come (and did) when she left the marriage. Though broken and sounded, she got out before they could destroy her, and is forever remembered as being beloved by the People.

An astonishing performance from Stewart, one for the ages and the absolute one to beat for the Academy Award as Best Actress. This is a performance for the ages, a soul-stroking piece of acting you will never forget.

The Cinemawala Rating: 3/5

 
 

About The Author: 

John H. Foote is among the best known film critics in Canada, and has been active as a critic for thirty years. His career began as co-host, co-producer of the popular movie talk and review program Reel to Real. He left the show after ten years for his first love, print criticism, he longed to write about movies. For two years he wrote for Toronto Life and Fashion Magazine, his work quote in the LA and New York Times, as well as major papers across North America. He was offered a position writing for the internet and has since wrote for incontention.com, thewrap.com, screenrant.com, awardscircuit.com and most recently thecinemaholic.com. In May, 2018 he started his own site https://Footeandfriendsonfilm.com, which has enjoyed great success its first few months. Foote was also involved in film education teaching film history and film genre at Trebas Institute before leaving to be Dean of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history and continued his work as a critic. Foote has written two books, Clint Eastwood : Evolution of a Filmmaker, and Spielberg: American Film Visionary. His third, American Cinema in the Seventies is due for release in 2020. 

Through his career he has interviewed everyone in the business except Jack Nicholson. 

 

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