Spencer (Review)

From the very start, Pablo Larraín’s Princess Diana movie steps outside of the realm of biopic. An opening statement tells us the film is a fable, one based on a true tragedy (its words), but a fable none the less. This lets the viewer know that we are entering the realm of the symbolic, a morality tale of sorts: a falsity gleaned from reality to show us how things really are. What this means is a film that is able to evoke more truth than almost any biopic, as it fully embraces the subjective lens. We are positioned with Diana, experiencing the world alongside her. What we see is never the dry literal, but it is the core truth of a person’s experience.

This is a film of real truth and insight, but it is also one deeply rooted in the symbolic. Some characters are fleshed out with humanity, Diana (of course) but then also key members of the serving staff at Sandringham Estate. The film takes place over three days (Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day) and concerns the British Royal Family celebrating Christmas at this historical house. The wider Royals exist as pencil sketches, Charles is the closest to an actual role here but he is purposefully pushed out of much of the narrative. This is Diana’s story and the only other proper characters are the ones who exist in her reality, a reality that has been forcibly removed from the reality of the Royal Family. Harry and William are well captured as young children; Sally Hawkins puts in a wonderful turn as Diana’s dresser and the ever excellent Sean Harris is the head chef, and another friend to Diana. The only other real player is Timothy Spall, but his role is more clearly symbolic: he is running the house and is in charge of security. Fundamentally, he is a symbol of tradition, oppression and the institution. He is a reminder that the Royals, as a system, exist outside of a core set of people. It is an ideology, an enterprise even, a sustaining, faceless thing that must always be a certain way.

This is core to the film’s sharp critique. Really, the best way to understand Spencer, and its excellence, is through comparison. It looks like Fanny and Alexander but moves almost like a horror film, if you wanted to know what film exists at the intersection of Bergman’s classic and Aronofsky’s Mother!, well, that film is Spencer. The suffocating and constricting way the camera sticks to Kristen Stewart’s Diana makes it all so overwhelming, evoking a woman constantly watched and continually oppressed. Jonny Greenwood’s perfect score (when is a Greenwood score not perfect?) only adds to this, classical instrumentation is matched with atypical melodies that intersect and overlap. Discordance is never fully achieved but neither is there ever anything that is quite harmonious, it is this uncannily beautiful soundscape that is both sparse and symphonic. A score of intricate contradictions to evoke that very idea in every aspect of this film. Ultimately, Spencer feels like a possession-horror film, or a haunted house tale. Though the film alludes to a few sources throughout, notably the life of Anne Boleyn, one reference point stuck in my head (one the film doesn’t make itself): the opening line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, ‘no live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality’. Here, Diana is that organism, stuck in a reality that is absolute in that it is inflexible and ironically alien because of this. The aforementioned possession-horror idea comes from how, at points, Diana feels like the only human who is trying to survive in a house full of Pod People (or doppelgangers). It almost has the The Thing, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, conceit to it, in that the wider Royals feel like aliens masquerading as humans that won’t accept Diana. There’s this persistent paranoia to their presentation as they exist on the edge of reality. At points, I wouldn’t have been surprised if we ended up in the same territory as Yuzna’s Society.

This all being said, it is worth pointing out that the film is immaculate. Larraín’s direction is just sublime. The warm cinematography (clearly shot on film) is stunningly beautiful throughout, with angelic lighting. This all aids the visual storytelling, the key strength. The way the film moves is just perfect, it is an enrapturing experience as we glide through beautiful places, a film in which each camera movement has evident purpose. We balance dream and reality, fact and fiction, and do so with utmost skill. A lot of this also only works because of how exceptional Kristen Stewart is in the main role. Her Diana is utterly convincing as Diana but is also just a masterful performance as a piece of character work. Stewart always conveys the idea that there is much more going on in her character than what is on the surface. Her Diana is enigmatic but also open, and she skilfully evokes the core contradictions of the figure, anchoring the film and lighting up the screen.

Alas, the script does not quite hold up to the standard of the direction, music and performance. It is a Steven Knight script and, at this point, it is what you expect. Parts of it are incredibly sharp, parts of it are incredibly funny, and the core idea of the piece is brilliant. Knight is good at central ideas, and atypical ones also. Turning a Diana movie into a timeless, symbolic tale focused around three days, and rotating around a number of metaphors, is a really interesting approach. It just isn’t quite pulled off as seamlessly as every other part of the film. A couple of recurring metaphors are very heavy handed, a consistent link to a historical figure being the core offender. It is not that this moment, and one that can be linked to it (that involves a bird), is bad. It is rather clever, in fact, and is rich with meaning. The thing is, it is just a bit clumsy and overdone, never unnecessary but never restrained enough. This is a film that is at its best when it is speaking through direction, and when it is pulling back (using repression as a core motif), where the script gives the film room to evoke rather than dictate. The more expository or contrived moments don’t work as well, they don’t quite get the balance of fable to reality right (while the wider film definitely does).

Spencer is still a triumph though, the issues being minor and actually rooted in positive points. It is a sublime showing of how crushing the British monarchy is as an institution. The monarchy is a thing that hurts everybody, that doesn’t allow for life and that sustains itself on empty tradition. Spencer is a searing film bound to upset certain people with where it points its ire. From my perspective, it is going to annoy the right people. Here we see what happens when a human finds themselves in the Royal Family, or just how that institution chews people up and stifles any sense of a future. Yes, the idea of a monarchy belongs in the past. The brilliance of Spencer is that it shows us how the monarchy sustains itself by cultivating that past in the present. There is no future here, and there doesn’t need to be. There is the weight of history and there is tradition. Things have only ever been one way and no difference will be tolerated.

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