Critically acclaimed drama Spencer was less of an awards magnet than it appeared to critics after its release last fall. Despite Claire Mathon’s stunning cinematography, outstanding supporting roles from Timothy Spall (Harry Potter and Denial), Sean Harris (“Mission Impossible: Fallout”, The Green Knight), Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (“Godzilla, The Shape of Water”), and a beautiful, free jazz score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s Jonny Greenwood, the film received no nominations for the BAFTAs. It was also overlooked by every Oscar category except one, Best Actress for Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales.
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Stewart’s performance is Oscar-worthy. Here’s why.
Stewart’s Diana Is Likable
The Princess was not already a popular figure. She was, in fact, incredibly likable over the 16 years she was in the spotlight. In the opening scene, Diana, a lost woman, stops at a cafe on the roadside to ask for directions. “Where am I,”She asks for permission to speak in a room with strangers. She is met by silence. It is not because of indifference, hostility, or because they are dumbfounded by the actions of others. They see a new member of the British royals, and it is not just any old royal. It is the most popular and accessible member of the British royal families to have made its way to prominence in decades. It is a powerful reminder of how it was thirty years ago, before the succession of Recent scandals involving the British royal familyDiana was loved by the British public, not just liked by them.
But playing Diana would be a difficult task. Despite her beautiful public image and undisguised fragility, it is a constant struggle to portray the British royal family in a film. It is very difficult to get paid audiences to sympathize a person who has, by default, lived a life of extraordinary privilege, safe cosetted in an institution that benefits from public money, and has struggled for decades for a reason for its continued existence.
Only a handful of actors have been able to evoke sympathy towards the royals. One can think of Judi Dench’s touching portrayal as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown (1997) or Victoria & Abdul (2017). Another example is Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning performance in The King’s Speech (2010) as King George VI. These examples are rare, and show how thinly trained actors can bring out the humanity of people who don’t have to worry about the First World. Kristen Stewart does it with ease, portraying the princess’s loneliness within a family that often considered her fractious or difficult.
Stewart Offers a Portrayal, But Not an Impersonation
Too many actors who portray historical characters in dramas fall prey to the temptation of exaggerating the idiosyncrasies. This creates a less than satisfying caricature. Underplaying is often the key to great portrayals. Stewart’s cast-mate Timothy Spall’s intelligent portrayal of Winston Churchill as The King’s Speech, or Frank Langella’s power hungry, yet maudlin Richard Nixon (Frost/Nixon) (2008), are examples of the virtues of distillation over impersonation. Stewart follows the same path.
She retains Diana’s distinctive head tilt and rolling of the eyes when she is embarrassed or stuck for words. But they are now being redirected to more contemplative work which evokes the tension that comes with being under acute psychological stress.
Diana’s Persona Is Allowed to Drop
It is easy to add a veneer or deference to historical depictions, especially if they are from the past. The rough edges are removed and virtues polished to a mirror-like shine. This is what we saw in the Madonna vehicle W.E. (2011), This carefully glossed over Edward VIII’s Nazi sympathiesInstead, a sanitized celebration of Wallace Simpson’s relationship with him is in order.
Stewart is able to benefit from a script that is enough self-possessed to acknowledge Diana’s flaws, playing such scenes with the kind of measured, calculated restraint you would expect from someone who was forced to play psychological chess alongside almost everyone in her circle. One can see it in her initial nonchalant and then panicked reactions when she was told she would have a special royal ritual of being weighed before Christmas dinner. (Diana had an eating disorder, which she spoke about at the end of her life).
It also shows her disgust at Prince Charles’ gift to her that was identical to the one she knew had been given Camilla Parker-Bowles. She gesture of generosity is futile. She offers the string of precious pearls to a palace cleaner and is then rebuffed. “right”Accepting them only reinforces the abiding image that a woman is caught between the need respect tradition and the need acknowledge her unhappiness.
Although Stewart was competent in his role in the Twilight saga ten year ago, there was not much evidence of Stewart’s nuanced meaning and panache. This performance is a triumph and well deserving of an Oscar nomination.
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