REVIEW: Spencer [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 111 minutes
    Release Date: November 5th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Neon
    Director(s): Pablo Larraín
    Writer(s): Steven Knight

Where am I?

The magic has long since disappeared where it comes to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) at the time director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight have set their “fable inspired by a true tragedy” entitled Spencer. It’s Christmas weekend and everyone already knows an end of some sort is near. Will there be a divorce? Will there be a scandal? Will there simply be scowling faces resigned to the fact that there will never be an escape from this joyless union that cannot be dissolved without grave consequences within their fairy tale world of perceived importance? Charles admits that everyone in this family is destined to live two lives: reality and fantasy. What he neglects to realize is that some live three.

This is Diana’s third, frayed and raw amidst a three-day nightmare of tradition under a microscope gripped by multiple wardens desperate for some sign of life or death in her eyes. Maybe she’ll get the picture and play ball. Maybe she’ll finally snap and give them an excuse to have her committed. Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall)—assigned by the Queen (Stella Gonet) herself to supervise the event and ensure no prying eyes photograph either result—isn’t too particular considering his quiet stalking and stiff upper lip is scary enough to help accomplish both. And it’s not like Diana doesn’t have reason to crack. She’s caught in a loveless marriage, bound by prison-like rules, and constantly reminded that nobody besides her sons wants her there anyway.

Jonny Greenwood‘s score plays. Claire Mathon‘s cinematography sings. And Stewart reminds the world how good of an actor she is when the material warrants her immense talents. Her Diana is moving through dreams and terror in equal measure, craving an honest answer that no one will provide save her favorite servant Maggie (Sally Hawkins) before she’s sent away via the belief that having someone to trust is preventing reality from setting in. While others might be correct in that thought, removing Diana’s sole ally won’t alleviate the anxiety that’s causing her tardiness and unpredictability. Realizing that alleviating it isn’t their goal is therefore less of a conspiracy theory than it is a poorly hidden truth. This is psychological warfare and she’s losing badly. Ghosts become her only solace.

There’s Anne Boylen (Amy Manson) searing into her brain courtesy of a book found in her room. There’s the proximity of this Christmas setting to the property where she grew up—the scarecrow still adorned by her father’s coat remaining visible from the windows. So, she talks with them both. She tries to right her sinking ship by reconciling past with present (both personal and historical) knowing that a future doesn’t exist unless she can. It’s no wonder then that the whole gradually becomes claustrophobic to the point of asphyxiation. The curtains are sewed shut. The perpetual demands compound. The growing isolation invites a crippling despair. And everyone is listening. Everyone seeks to be the one who catches her shattering to the floor. That’s where her value lies.

Aesthetically, Spencer cannot be talked about without mentioning the director’s previous esoteric biopic Jackie. Both are about the aftermath of a tragedy: one physical and one psychological. Both are emotionally weighty in the response. But I can’t help feeling as though they’re very different movies. Maybe this is because of me. I neither know what it’s like to experience a mental breakdown such as the one Diana is going through on-screen because of her increasingly fishbowl-like existence nor do I particularly care about the Royals. I know it’s reductive and offensive to say considering no one deserves what this family did to Diana (and perhaps hindsight of her fate adds to my feelings), but how could you not know this would be the result? Royal existence is madness.

And because Larraín and company approach this weekend with a similarly poetic style to Jackie, we don’t receive any context for such a decline. You really do have to have an affinity for Diana to fully commit to what’s happening since we’re simply dropped in with the assumption that we know the details. As someone who can’t care on a level beyond empathizing with Diana as a victim of vultures and jailors, that’s not enough. My entry point was therefore her humanity outside of this very manufactured life. Strip away what she signed-up for and what she was perhaps unprepared to endure due to the widespread international austerity we continue to supply the Royals and you have a mother desperate to save her sons from the same fate.

Knowing what has happened to Harry in the last couple years shows the validity of that attempt and the happy moment of escape set to Mike + the Mechanics’ “All I Need is a Miracle” is a cathartic bit of revisionist history that lets Diana reclaim the humanity that the world stole from her in the years before her death. That’s a lot of external context, however—context I’m not well-versed enough in to fully embrace what Larraín has given me on a subjective level. The film is gorgeous objectively with stunning visuals, memorable performances, and pristine production values, but my disinterest in the subject and ignorance to all the details leaves me at arm’s length as far as getting more out of it. So, temper your expectations.

Because here’s the thing: I’m an American. Jackie Onassis is my cultural touchstone as far as the topic of beautiful women chewed up and spit out by tradition, tabloids, and tragedy and I’m certain the way I felt about that movie is how many who hold Diana as theirs will feel about this one. That Spencer still works on a technical and emotional level despite my distance from its material shouldn’t be disregarded, though. The filmmaking is superb and Stewart delivers a heartbreaking performance to complement the visuals’ fractured psyche of hallucinatory suffering. It’s a must-see regardless of whether you’ll ever want to watch it again and a stirring tribute to a tragic figure who deserved real love along with the blind adulation and gross commodification.

[1] SPENCER by Pablo Larrain. Courtesy of NEON.
[2] SPENCER. Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana. Courtesy of NEON.
[3] SPENCER. Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in her childhood home. Courtesy of NEON.

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