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‘Spencer’ brings elegance and gravity to the Virginia Film Festival

The Pablo Larraín-directed film made its local debut at the Paramount Theater Friday evening

<p>An excited crowd filled the Paramount’s floor seats and balcony for the Virginia Film Festival’s screening of “Spencer” Friday evening.</p>

An excited crowd filled the Paramount’s floor seats and balcony for the Virginia Film Festival’s screening of “Spencer” Friday evening.

Among the most highly anticipated films of the year, “Spencer” earned itself a gala screening slot at 8:30 p.m. Friday — drawing the curtain on the Virginia Film Festival’s third day. Jody Kielbasa, University vice provost for the arts and VAFF director, introduced the film. U.Va. Gamma Knife Center sponsored the film’s screening at the Paramount Theater.

Kristen Stewart stars opposite Jack Farthing in “Spencer” — the duo play Princess Diana and Prince Charles, respectively. Jack Nielen portrays young Prince William in his film debut. Sally Hawkins plays Maggie, the Princess’ companion and preferred dresser, while Timothy Spall portrays the imposing Major Alistar Gregory. Steven Knight, the mastermind behind the Netflix drama series “Peaky Blinders,” wrote the film.

With an acclaimed cast and crew, “Spencer” seems promising on paper. Even so, the film exceeds expectations on screen. Stewart expertly embodies the late princess — she nails her accent and mannerisms precisely. Her shy batting of the eyes and visible comfort around her sons, William and Harry, throughout the film recall Princess Diana’s bashful demeanor and youthful spirit.

The film begins with a disclaimer of sorts flashed across a black screen — it reads, “A fable from a true tragedy.” The phrase ultimately epitomizes “Spencer” in that although elements of the plot are exaggerated, the events of Princess Diana’s life compose the arc of a tragedy. Her struggle to withstand pressure from the monarchy to change is immortalized in Larraín’s film, accurately portraying the late princess as more human than martyr.

Of course, moments of levity in the company of her sons or Maggie are overshadowed by the darker aspects of Princess Diana’s life. The film certainly does not shy away from portraying her tumultuous marriage, eating disorder or attempts at self-harm. In reimagining the fateful holiday spent at Sandringham, Larraín even takes liberties to demonstrate the late princess’ growing desperation and paranoia — in one such instance, she swallows whole beads of a pearl necklace Prince Charles gave her with spoonfuls of soup.

Surprisingly, Anne Boleyn — played by Amy Mason — enters the narrative under the premise of Princess Diana’s own delusion. Larraín cleverly draws parallels between the two prominent women in British royal history. Both were accused by their husbands of being unfaithful, despite their husbands actually cheating on them. Obviously, Anne Boleyn was beheaded at her husband’s request, and her repeated appearances and interactions with Princess Diana in the film foreshadow the late princess’ death and raise questions about the royal family’s involvement in the incident.

Furthermore, the score encapsulated the film’s mood perfectly. Scenes fraught with tension are exacerbated by intense violin music — for example, when the royal family is waiting for Princess Diana, who is late once again, to arrive at dinner. Moreover, William and Harry sing “All I Need Is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics with their mother during their lighthearted joyride after escaping a pheasant shooting excursion.    

The Chilean director Larraín is no stranger to biographical filmmaking. Prior to directing “Spencer,” he directed the 2016 film “Jackie,” which follows Jackie Kennedy over the seven days after her husband’s traumatic assassination. Likewise, “Spencer” follows Princess Diana over the course of three days spent at Sandringham estate during the Christmas holidays. In doing so, the film delves into Princess Diana’s inner psyche to analyze her eventual decision to leave the royal family.

Shot on-location in Germany and the United Kingdom, the cinematography is altogether stunning. Elegant palace scenes are balanced with serene shots of winding roads and moonlit fields, contrasting the excesses of royalty with the simplicity of nature. A warm filter overlays the majority of scenes, contradicting the cool rigidity Princess Diana is treated with over her three-day stay at Sandringham. Even though the warm filter gives Sandringham a homey feel, it becomes clear that the estate is far from home to the late princess, despite her growing up next door.     

The 34th annual Virginia Film Festival concluded on Sunday. Just in time for the holiday season, “Spencer” hits theaters Friday, Nov. 5.