- Movie Rating -

Spencer (2021)

| December 14, 2021

I await every project helmed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraine with giddy anticipation.  I have seen three films by this director and every time I see one, I am exhilarated.  His work is a vast and sometimes complicated labyrinth of abstract images, moody music and odd turns that he refuses to interpret or explain to you.  He keeps your brain working, he challenges your notions of what a film can be.  I like the journey because I never know what is coming.

His latest film Spencer is a great companion piece to Jackie, which he made five years ago about the whirlwind of emotions plaguing the mind of First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the hours and days following her husband’s murder.  Spencer doesn’t offer an environment quite as traumatic but it does size up the craziness that seemed to have occupied the mind of The Princess of Wales during one particularly difficult Holiday season.

Larraine must know that the recent season of Netflix’s “The Crown” has already run through Diana’s real-life inner turmoil because he opens this film with the title: “A fable from a true tragedy.”  That title alone is a nice relaxing agent for us because we know then not to look for hard facts.  The story here is more in Diana’s head.  We meet her in 1991 as she is late for the Holiday festivities at The Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.  Much of what we know of Diana at this point is here.  Yes, her marriage is crumbling under Charles’ affair with Camilla.  Yes, she is battling bulimia.  But the fact that Larraine and screenwriter Steven Knight have paired down her story to this one holiday season gets us into her head during one crucial season and asks questions that are not immediately answered.  What is Diana feeling?  What does she think about?  How does she react to being a bird in a gilded cage?  Larraine is a visual master who offers the interiors of the estate as a prison that she cannot escape.  Many times the camera follows her down corridors and skews odd angles that reminded me of The Shining.

The context of Diana’s turmoil is the constant reminder that she is part of the Royal Family and duty bound to remember her place and observe her behavior.  It doesn’t help that the estate is not far from Park House, her childhood home.  It is a constant reminder of the freedom and independence that she gave up to be The Princess of Wales.  This fact constantly comes back to her as she realizes that she is unable to go anywhere without the eyes and the ears of the staff knowing every move that she makes, particularly the former military officer (Timothy Spall) who reminds her that nothing misses his eyes and ears.

Reunited with William and Harry, Diana is duty-bound to put on a brave face in the middle of a lot of pomp and circumstance that she does not want.  The trauma is palatable as her anxiety and depression begin to overwhelm her.  She sees the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) whom you will recall was beheaded by Henry VIII because His Highness wanted to marry Jane Seymour and sees a strange connection to her own problem with Charles.  What safety nets seem to exist for Diana are either taken away or just out of reach, even her closest confident, a dresser named Maggie (Sally Hawkins) is whisked away from the estate just when Diana seems to need her the most.

Larraine isn’t interested in the historical brick-a-brac any more than he was with Jackie, but here again he is interested in traversing the emotional hurricane that exists inside of a woman who lives in a goldfish bowl.  He has managed to pull an effectively emotional performance from an unlikely source.  Kristen Stewart has long been criticized for her lack of charisma (or talent, take your pick) but here we sense something else.  It’s not a performance that requires a lot of a monologues and impersonations.  The camera stays very close to her face and in offering limited dialogue, I think there’s more room for us to consider what Diana is thinking.  That’s not to say that Stewart is best when she acts less but she affects something more powerful from a minimalist approach.  Yes, the accent is wonky and the wigs often feel stiff but there was never a moment that I felt that I was watching Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana.  It is an immersive performance and she does a fine job.

Spencer is an emotional journey, one that asks us to consider not only Diana but any young woman trying to betray the social requirement that demands that they be “in their place.”  Diana, and previously Jackie Kennedy, are prime examples of this and Larraine is building a tapestry of women under the influence.  His last film was his daffiest, Ema, the story of a dancer breaking away from her controlling partner and society in general for what turns out to be the craziest heist you’ve ever experienced.

Things aren’t quite that insane here but they are brilliantly executed on a visual level, the best being a dinner scene in which Diana is forced to wear a string of gaudy pearls that she knows were also given to Camilla.  What Diana does with the pearls in that moment is both painful and deeply symbolic.  Personally, I love moments like that, when we break the tapestry of the real and move into abstract mindsets that allow us to see what is going on in someone’s mind.  This whole movie is like that.

Many will not have the same exhilaration that I did.  I suspect that many will be looking for a film that feels more historical, like an extension of “The Crown,” but that’s not what we have here.  This is a movie about a woman trapped and pinned under the weight of convention and expectation.  We know now that Diana’s whole marriage was like that, that her public persona was of a woman in a glass cage.  Larraine’s goal is to show us who she was, not as a glamor symbol but as a human being.  This is one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Drama