Spencer

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Spencer presents the most literal version of “clutching the pearls” that I have ever seen. At Christmas dinner, the royals are seated around a banquet table. The setting is opulent but the mood is chilly and austere. Dressed In their refinery, the family begins to dine. Staring at one another, they continue to eat but fail to converse. The violin music swells. The atmosphere is too much for Diana. With a grand motion, She forcibly seizes her necklace as if to strangle herself right there. She yanks with a hard tug and the strand breaks. The pearls come crashing down to the table, some tumble into her soup. No one says a thing. With fiendish delight, she spoons a single bead and inserts the foreign object into her mouth. Lodged in her oral cavity, she bites down hard on the sphere. She runs to the bathroom and vomits. The pearls still noticeably around her neck. Clearly, this didn’t happen. It’s unlikely that much — if anything — happened in this story. A little title card at the beginning tips the viewer off (and absolves the filmmaker): “A fable from a true tragedy.”

Spencer takes place over three days in December 1991 while the royals spend the Christmas holiday at Sandringham — the queen’s country estate –in Norfolk. It’s a jarring fusion of factual people and places reimagined in a contrived work of fiction. The drama dispenses with introductions. The screenplay by Steven Knight ( The Hundred-Foot Journey, Allied) assumes you know these personalities and what they were going through at the time. We get depictions of Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet), and various attendants of the staff. Actor Timothy Spall is particularly memorable as a menacing equerry. He oversees the manor like a vampire with a watchful eye. Even Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Emma Darwall-Smith) appears briefly. She doesn’t speak, but she’s giving some knowing glances.

Of course, Diana is the central figure. Before Diana met Prince Charles, her maiden name was Spencer. Kristen Stewart is Diana. The whole thing is told from her point of view. You can quibble over whether an American should be playing this icon, but Kristen Stewart is indeed mesmerizing. The actress’s mannerisms and expressions eerily suggest the princess. Diana is married to the first in line to the throne, but she openly wants none of it. She loathes to show up on time, exasperated by their traditions, tortured by the idea of having to wear expensive clothes, irritated by the attentive staff, and other such indignities.

Diana is a victim trapped in a house / marriage / family / dynasty she desperately wants to escape. These are first-world problems of the upper 0.00001 %. As such, the circumstances are not easily appreciable and we aren’t provided the insight to commiserate with her plight. She is detached and petulant, behaviors that render her unlikable. Nevertheless, the situation is designed to engender our sympathy. She is tormented by a predicament that grows progressively more traumatic. This is the portrayal of a woman disturbed. If she has a cinematic parallel, it’s Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. The 1965 classic also detailed a fragile woman falling apart. That’s the assignment and the actress is effective within that context.

Spencer doesn’t cater to your expectations. That’s a compliment of sorts. This is not some stately affair of the British monarchy, but a gothic horror tale. It mixes real people and places in a portrait of an individual coming completely undone. Kristen Stewart gives a highly mannered and stylized performance. She does exactly what director Pablo Larraín has demanded. In Jackie (2016), Larraín detailed the emotional toll on Jacqueline Kennedy immediately after her husband was assassinated. The similarities between the two pictures are evident. You’ll have to be on board for a heavy-handed nightmare that underlines the intention of every event, puts it in boldface, and then italicizes it to emphasize the statement. There’s even a cheesy 80s pop song at the end with lyrics that telegraph what she is feeling with uplifting precision. The production is a unique take, but I can’t say I was delighted by this highly exaggerated version of events.

11-09-21

7 Responses to “Spencer”

  1. To me, it felt like someone wrote a story about a woman coming undone, then said “hey, let’s make it about Princess Diana, we’ll call it a fable”. Not good. Kristen was pretty good and will get nominated, but shouldn’t win. 2 ⭐️

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect the narrative of the Twilight actress claiming an Oscar will be very tempting. That will help drive her win with an admittedly mesmerizing performance. I just wish it was in service of a better film though.

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  2. Seems like an exploitative picture, like Larrain is going for a mood piece instead of a factual account. That’s a risky proposition given the subject of Diana. On one hand you want to applaud the guy for trying to avoid the conventional biopic route (again); on the other, perhaps stepping out on a limb does a disservice to what could have been a more lucid tale

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eric Robert Wilkinson Says:

    I saw this a second time this week and liked it a bit better – a bathroom break resulted in missing a lot in the middle the first time… I just wonder having made a film about a powerful woman in the wake of her husband’s murder and now a powerful woman in the mindset which eventually helped lead to her death (to extrapolate) I wondered who’d be his next subject … pat Nixon? Hillary?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it more the 2nd time. Once any movie starts, I never leave the theater for that very reason. However, I would have thought that missing parts of this film would not mar one’s enjoyment. I didn’t have a problem with the pacing, but not much happens in this story. And the various things that occur which push the same idea, are repeated several times for emphasis.

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