Director: Pablo Larraín
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins
Today, 5th November 2021, marks the UK release of Pablo Larraín’s frosty Princess Diana biopic with Kristen Stewart in the lead role, but it also marks the release of Kid A Mnesiac; a grouping of Radiohead’s two signature 2000/2001 albums which were originally released a few months apart, and which grew out of the same marathon recording sessions.
Why bring this up (aside from Jonny Greenwood’s coincidental work here providing the score for Spencer)? Because a few years ago Larraín fashioned a similarly icy portrait of a tragic figure from modern history; Jackie starring Natalie Portman as the former First Lady, suffering the immediate aftershocks of her husband’s assassination. If that film – an austere yet soulful masterpiece – is his Kid A, then Spencer is his Amnesiac. It plays like a craggier, weirder dark X-ray of it’s glacial forebearer. It is slightly less complete, if only for how boldly it announces its inherent strangeness.
It’s Christmas Eve in the mid-’90s, and Diana, Princess of Wales, is late to the Royal gathering at Sandringham. We’ll spend the better part of three days in her company as she quietly unravels amid the stern disapproval she observes, suffers and occasionally imagines from both her peers and those waiting on her. And there’s certainly a lot of waiting here, in both senses of the word.
Forever late to meals and public outings, Diana is portrayed as a woman on the edge, struggling with an eating disorder she’s been made to feel ashamed of, a growing penchant for self-harm, and the constant scrutiny she receives from beady-eyed house master Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall). The insinuation is that, as an outsider, she is a previously-sane woman driven to madness by the tight regiments of tradition bound up in the Royal family. Speaking to her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), Diana says that there’s no future to be found in an institution where past and present are one.
Spencer takes this sentiment quite literally. Steven Knight’s script is diabolically clunky – both in terms of some of the dialogue he hands out and his obliteration of subtext – but it has the effect of turning the movie into a baroque shadowplay of The Shining. Diana is Wendy, trapped in a house filled with ghosts (in an arch motif she has occasional interactions with the spirit of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson)), her sons are Danny (fretfully sensing doom in the future), and her unfaithful husband Charles (Jack Farthing) is Jack Torrance; brimming with one-note villainy. Even glowering Major Gregory has more than a dash of Grady about him.
This reading of Spencer as a horror film serves it very well. It is a ghostly affair, especially as Diana longs to return to her family home the lies in ruin and borders the Sandringham estate, sitting in its shadow. Toward the end of the picture Larraín rekindles the fluid sense of collage that opened his last film, Ema, and has Diana’s past and present blur into one undulating montage as though all of time is happening at once – just like the ghostly parties of the Overlook Hotel.
Stewart’s performance is a lot of things. At times it seems an awkward, overly-considered imitation, at others it is breathlessly honest and humane. Both sides of the coin are fascinating to watch and the few scenes without her feel her absence keenly. Technically speaking, the film is immaculate. Claire Mathon’s earthen cinematography is gorgeous, while the aforementioned montage doubles as a showcase from the hair and wardrobe departments (and as a fanfare for Diana’s role as a fashion icon; something she shares with Stewart).
It is the cacophonies from Knight’s script that send Spencer spinning into knotty realms of awkwardness and exploitation. Fat-thumbed portents of death aren’t nearly as necessary as he thinks they are, and Larraín would’ve done better to limit their number. And while oddball lines of dialogue charitably provide character to the piece, Knight’s steadfast adherence to the myth of the People’s Princess provides most of the film’s clunkiest interactions. Perhaps worst of all, a melodramatic third act demonstration seems intended to showcase Diana’s passion for protest, but comes off as absolutely unhinged.
It is not a perfect film, as Amnesiac is not a perfect album. And this is where this review abandons objectivity altogether. Because even though I recognise the clunky cragginess of Amnesiac it has become one of my favourite Radiohead records. I understand and accept it’s faults, but those faults are part of it’s singular personality, ultimately making it just as fascinating a record as it’s sleeker elder brother.
The same feels true of Spencer after just one sitting. It’s a deeply strange little dirge of a film, one that feels tightly wrapped and short of breath, only for it’s sudden blurts and blunders to seem exaggerated and surprising when they happen. Yet, with all its ghostly halls and ominous chills, I was absolutely spellbound from beginning to end. Like plenty of flawed masterpieces before it, Spencer suggests a protective and enduring love will build for this film; the prestige biopic equivalent of a Christmas tree slowly toppling over.
Larraín’s career has been preoccupied with the crumbling of institutions (from his Pinochet films to the quiet housebound horrors of The Club), and Spencer folds into this ongoing sense of cinematic distaste. Traditions, he argues, need to be toppled, just like dictatorships. Here we’re shown the innards of one such outdated establishment, and its suffocating grip on a woman struggling for wriggle-room she’d never fully achieve. No matter how often she wanted to disappear completely, there was always someone listening in.