Spencer, the biopic of Diana, Princess of Wales starring Kristen Stewart, has had a triumphant debut at the Venice film festival, garnering acclaim for Stewart’s performance and the insight it achieves into Diana’s isolation and unhappiness during her marriage to Prince Charles. On thee same day Venice also saw the world premiere of sci-fi epic Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Timothée Chalamet, which also won plaudits for its huge-scale vision and contemporary relevance.
Taking place over a single weekend at Sandringham House in 1991, Spencer chronicles a crisis in Diana’s life as she takes part in the royal family’s Christmas holiday, before her marital difficulties were revealed publicly in Andrew Morton’s 1992 book Diana: Her True Story. Her divorce from Charles was finalised in 1996. In a five star review the Guardian’s film critic Xan Brooks said the film was “an opulent ice palace of a movie … rich and intoxicating and altogether magnificent”, while the Telegraph, in another five star review, described it as “thrillingly gutsy, seductive, uninhibited filmmaking”.
Speaking at a press conference before the film’s premiere, Stewart emphasised what she saw as Diana’s relatability, and the essential tragedy of her loneliness. “The really sad thing is that Diana, as normal and casual and disarming her air was, felt so isolated and lonely. She made everyone else feel accompanied, and bolstered by a beautiful light – and all she wanted was to have it back. It’s the idea of somebody being so desperate for connection, and able to make other people feel so good, feeling so bad on the inside.”
Saying she felt Diana was “born with … an undeniable penetrative energy”, Stewart added: “We haven’t had many of those people throughout history. Diana stands out as a just as a sparkly house on fire.”
Spencer is directed by Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, whose 2016 film Jackie earned its star Natalie Portman an Oscar nomination for best actress for her role as Jacqueline Kennedy. Saying that he wanted “to make a movie that my mother could like”, Larraín said he was drawn to Diana to investigate why “someone like her, born into such privileged circumstances, could be someone so normal, could feel so ordinary and regular, and build so many bridges of empathy around the world”.
“She carried an enormous amount of mystery, and combined with her magnetism you have the perfect elements for a movie. And you will never completely understand Diana.”
Stewart also commented on Diana’s status as a fashion icon, saying the popularity of her style reflected the fact that she was so “touchable”. There’s a common thread in the fashion world that is about elevation, unattainability. Let’s give them a dream. But even when Diana looked at her most beautiful, you felt she could kick her shoes off, and walk outside and ask how you are. It’s hard to do that when you are teetering around on heels and looking like no one can come near you. It didn’t really matter what she wore. She knew how to use clothes as armour, but was so constantly available and visible. She wore her heart on her sleeve.”
Spencer’s script was written by Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, and Larraín explained that their intention was to create a “new kind of fairy tale” about “a princess who was gong away from the idea of being a queen because what she wants is to be herself”. He added: “Sandringham is a metaphor – the house is really an organisation, so the character is trapped in the wheels of tradition and history.” Stewart added that there were advisers on set to correct her on points of royal etiquette, and that she had learned how to curtsey correctly– “not too low otherwise you’ll fall over”.
Stewart said she could empathise with Diana’s difficulties over dealing with her enormous fame saying that while she has “never tasted anywhere near that monumental level” she could “imagine what it was like to feel backed into a corner”. Stewart also denied that the film was intrusive. “The movie doesn’t offer any new information, it doesn’t profess to know anything. It imagines a feeling. My impression can only be my own. There’s nothing salacious about our intention.”
Venice also saw the world premiere of the long awaited new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s mammoth sci-fi epic Dune. Published in 1965, Herbert’s novel was filmed by David Lynch in 1984 after a celebrated attempt by Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to get off the ground in the early 70s.
Speaking at a press conference, Villeneuve said he felt that Dune’s themes were more relevant than ever. “Dune was written in the 1960s, as a portrait of the 20th century, but through time it has become more and more a prediction of what will happen in the 21st. The danger of the blend between religion and politics, the danger of messianic figures, the impact of colonialism, the problem with the environment. I wish it was not the case but I think the movie will speak to the world right now more than it would have done 40 years ago.”
Javier Bardem, who plays tribal leader Stilgar in the film and is a high-profile climate crisis campaigner, added: “The author was ahead of his time, he was already concerned about how the world was going, how it was losing its capacity to keep us all in good health as we violate its limits. Here we are today, dealing with that. It’s happening as we speak. It’s on the governments and big corporations, the solutions to how we change our minds about how we behave in this world. It’s either that or disaster.”
The film covers the first half of Herbert’s novel, and Villeneuve said that it was still up in the air as to whether a second film would be made. Joking that his biggest difficulty was dealing with Chalamet’s hair – “it’s alive!” – Villeneuve did however encourage audiences to see it in cinemas. “It has been dreamed, designed, made, shot, thinking for the big screen. For me, the big screen is part of the language.”