Spencer

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Freddie Spry, and Sean Harris.

Directed By: Paulo Laureen

Where I Watched It: Apple VOD

English Audio Description Available?: Yes.

The Plot: At the end of her rope, Diana (Kristen Stewart) attends a family traditional Christmas, where she battles her own mental health, her desire to be a mother to her kids, and a strong need to end her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing).

What Works: The kids who play William and Harry are delightful, and the best scenes in the entire film revolve around Diana being (or at least being presented as) a deeply invested and devoted mother. Honestly, this is really the saving grace for the entire film, and instead of retreading the same story we get a much better version of in The Crown, I would have loved an entire movie with just Diana, William, and Harry. That might have at least felt like a unique film that hadn’t been done to death, and would have amplified the films strongest moments.

What Doesn’t Work: Quite literally everything else. First of all, I have to address the overall sound design for the film, which is atrocious. That even includes the unfortunate layout of the audio description on top of a deeply flawed film, with a director trying really hard to be artistically relevant, while failing across all boards.

I may be a blind movie critic, but I’m not deaf. And the entire film is just people whispering. Kristen Stewart’s interpretation of Diana would be better served as Marilyn Monroe, if Marilyn Monroe was also hiding from a serial killer in her house and couldn’t make any noise. She’s so breathy in all of her line delivery, she lacks support in her diaphragm to be able to make any substantial sound. The worst part is that she seems to not know how inaudible she is, so when she actually chooses to whisper, if anyone is even moving around you, you won’t hear the dialogue.

Yes, I watched it at home, but in general, my setup is fine for everything else. I say sound design, because it seems to be the directors choice to have everyone be extraordinarily quiet, like they’re hiding from those monsters in a quiet place. The kids are probably the loudest consistently, and even they feel like they’re being told to be quiet. Everyone is told to be quiet all the time. It’s a choice. A directorial failure, to have everyone whisper the entire film, and not give them the kind of sound design that allows your audience to hear the whispering without straining. Older people with hearing issues must hate this film, or watch it with closed captioning.

I know this cast is capable of producing sound, because they do, but almost never. I remember one sequence where a member of the staff was addressing a room full of servants, and finally used his big boy voice, and then I knew it wasn’t just the film overall, it was actually people making a choice to not be heard. Quite frankly, it’s really fucking frustrating.

Adding to the sound design, because this director is apparently a psychopath, we have random moments where the score just blasts and melts your face off if you dare to turn up the volume. Should you actually want to hear the dialogue, you are punished for cranking up the sound, when out of nowhere the films score soars in some of the oddest places.

But for me, I could only go so loud, because the audio description is normally balanced, so while everyone in the film plays hide and seek with their voice, the narrator is full volume, so turning up at a certain point becomes untenable. Overall, it seems like every decision made related to sound was in an effort to punish the audience for bothering to buy a ticket.

Following that, the film truly is unremarkable. The reason why I would have preferred a mother/sons movie was because with all the adaptations already made around this family, Spencer feels like a retread. Even when this film tackles her eating disorder, I remember Emma Corrine doing that already in the Crown, not that long ago. Kristen doesn’t even get to break new ground there either. Instead, this film ramps up her paranoia, using symbolism with objects like a scarecrow and a pearl necklace to sell us on that this Diana is even more unbalanced than we might have ever known.

But none of it really feels earned. Because we are all expected to know who these people are inside and out, the character development is non existent. After all, some of these people are still alive, and you should know everything you need to know. Instead of trying to really dive into Diana’s point of view, the director would rather sell us on her mental instability, and leave most of the characters in the Royal family with little to nothing to do.

Spencer also wastes Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins among the help, again relegating them to make as little sound as humanly possible. As far as Kristen Stewart, who has been praised for her work here, I really just thought she made all the wrong choices. She’s delightful when mothering, but our inept director barely lets her do that. When she can be heard, her accent is good, and there are a few moments of substantial acting to be had. Mostly, she’s stuck with a bad director, and a boring script. She’s getting the wrong notes, and I completely understand why she’s been left out of races like the Screen Actors Guild awards. Everyone just finished praising Emma Corrine for her transcendent performance in The Crown. Spencer’s feels like an also ran, something that was a competing project we were never meant to really see. Remember Capote? Hoffman sucked up all the energy, so when Toby Jones came around with Infamous, no one cared. Same thing happened with Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour, completely shoving Brian Cox in Churchill aside. Of course, critics would say the first film in both of those are the better film, but if the release pattern had been flipped, would everyone have been as impressed by the two eventual Oscar winners having just watched two very capable actors play the same exact roles?

That’s what we have here. Kristen, due to her allowing her director to ruin her performance, comes across as second rate. She’s not as good as Emma Corrine, though I wonder if she had a different director who let her speak at full volume, and a better script, how would that have looked? This really was disappointing, and everything seems avoidable, and it all rests with the choices the director makes. I’ll remember to avoid his films in the future.

The Blind Perspective: As I already noted, there was audio description. It may become a hindrance in some regards as you will want to turn up the volum to hear the dialogue, though you’ll be punished by random crescendos in the films score that go absurdly loud at the weirdest times. Plus, this audio description actually bled a little over into dialogue,, which normally isn’t a problem, but when the dialogue is already whispering, it makes it all worse. Then there are times where the audio description, which is kept at the same volume level, loses out to the random blasts from the films score. I had a very unpleasant experience all around, obviously.

Final Thoughts: I never care ultimately what others think when I review. I don’t care if Kristen gets an Oscar nomination for this, it is undeserved. I loved her last year in The Happiest Season, and she’s been better in other indie fare before where the Oscars failed to recognize her. I would not vote for her. I honestly wish I hadn’t paid the VOD to see this film. These are the times that after being a critic for so long, I wish I was getting screeners, because at least if this was free, I might be less resentful. But money is gone, I can’t get it back, and this movie is still one of the worst films I saw from 2021.

Final Grade: D

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