Spencer (2021)

Directed by Pablo Larraín; Written by Steven Knight

Pablo Larraín likes to run riot through hallowed halls. 

He did it in Jackie, staying uncomfortably close to Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, the president. It featured Natalie Portman as the first lady, divine but ruined, stumbling through the White House with wine in hand, as well as in shocked terror, washing her husband’s brains out of her hair. An icon cleft in twain. 

From one first family to the next, Larraín now sets his iconoclast eye on Lady Diana, chronicling three days over Christmas where she must endure her in-laws, stand the pressure of the public’s watchful eye, but above all reckon with the monster her life has become. 

Throughout there’s a dichotomy of militant control and personal revolt. To prepare for this royal gathering, sumptuous delicacies of every stripe are delivered by soldiers in munitions boxes, cooks enter and take their stations like the camouflaged colleagues they replaced. The head chef, a wiry man with a humourless moustache rallies them by quoting Henry V: “Once more unto the breach.” At the entrance to the castle, an ex-soldier now head of house waits stone-faced for the arrival of the one person he is to marshal.  

That person is Diana, played by Kristen Stewart, whose youth and coy laissez-faire sees her whip through the English countryside in a Porsche and dressed in a bright tartan Chanel jacket, the image of the unruly daughter out on a joyride. There’s freedom here, but only as far as the castle steps, where battle lines are drawn. 

We learn she and hubby Charles only just tolerate each other’s presence, as good as strangers were it not for their common destiny to one day rule the country together. The Queen Mother, impenetrable and cold like the coins that bear her likeness, offers only quiet condemnation as Diana struggles against the expectations of her. Ahead are three days’ worth of ceremony, some private and some public, and a thousand occasions for Diana to snap. 

Because she’s not feeling well, to put it mildly. Near the castle, but lost in fog, is her childhood home and the memento mori of the ruin it has become sends her into a spiral. A marriage in ruins, a press corps devoted to picking her life apart, and the gilded cage she lives in growing ever-tighter. Caught in the crossfire too are two young boys, William and Harry. Diana the girl, the mother, the person, is struggling – where did Diana Spencer disappear to? And what’s to become of Lady Di? Is she to be another Anne Bolelyn, beheaded because King Henry VIII wanted to remarry?

Jackie stood cold and towering in the shock and awe following JFK’s death, but Spencer runs hot. Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy score of court intrigue is upbeat, erratic, its cascading cymbals telling the audience a life is crashing before their ears. As for what we can see, Claire Mathon’s cinematography has the grain of 90s film, but none of its stilted camerawork, replete with dramatic centered composition to denote power positions and close-ups to intensify feelings of despair and doubt. Behind the camera, Larraín plays mind games, summoning illusions, imagined terrors and hallucinations. The visual texture of Spencer is a feast on its own, a perfect reflection of the disjointed elegance of Greenwood’s score. 

There’s a wicked pleasure in Larraín’s fictional portraits that spit on the idea of respectful distance to their subjects. Coupled with the takedown of Jackie, Larraín seems to operate by some cinematic Newtonian Third Law, where the intensity of a person’s undoing is directly proportional to the sanctity of their public images. So, if Diana really is England’s rose, Larraín is much more interested in her thorns. Yes, Diana’s circumstances are not enviable, they’re downright miserable, but she’s also no saint. Petulant, self-pitying, impulsive, Larraín’s Diana is a woman possessed, and the role allows Stewart to act up in a way her career so far has denied her, with her sleepy eyes and drooping lower lip almost making impassivity her default state. While Stewart’s range will never see her fully erupt, she’s perfect as a distraught woman whose meltdowns still happen under the ice of royal propriety.

Opposite her, Timothy Spall is excellent, every bit the nobleman now of British cinema. He always was excellent of course, but his portly physique and gravity lent itself to fiery personalities mostly, so to see him impose himself with such measured control, standing opposite Diana’s grace like a tweed-wrapped iron fist, is another feather in a cap now resembling a peacock’s ass.

In Spencer, Jackie now has an unruly sister; a deranged drum solo to follow the transcendent string arrangement. Jackie turned a story of private shock and grief into a contemplation of the power of mythology, seeing how Jackie Kennedy found immortality in death. Spencer is the opposite, showing us one person’s fight to reclaim her humanity from the dehumanizing clutches of public perception and reconnecting with who she was – in her past, a future.  

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