Spencer (2021)

Spencer (2021) Directed by Pablo Larraín

A dense externalization of repressive and detrimental emotions that reverberate psychoanalytically in an unorthodox biographical film design. Spencer is the film of 2021 that best persuaded me with its filmic architecture, in such a special and positive way that I find it overwhelmingly complex to decipher its nature, its dramatic power and the effects it generated in me.

It is quite certain that the genesis of the enormous impact that this film had on me intellectually and emotionally, derives from the filmmaker behind this risky and forcefully aesthetic project. Pablo Larraín is the most proficient Chilean auteur working in the medium, probably somewhat imprudent of me to say so directly and brazenly that he is the finest Chilean director working in contemporary times without leaving room for discussion, however what can be elucidated is that he is indisputably the most dexterous filmmaker operating in the territory of biographical cinema. Paradoxically, biographical filmmaking is one of the most hopelessly flawed narrative approaches in my estimation and also one of my least favorite forms of filmmaking; but then, what is it that makes Pablo Larraín’s pronouncedly biographical work so genuine and distinctive?

First of all, I believe that we must define that Larraín does not make biographies to the letter, therefore, we are not necessarily talking about a conservative biographical film, much less a conventional one. The canvas on which this Chilean filmmaker works is highly dissimilar to that of traditional biographies or the type of biopic to which the audience is usually accustomed. Spencer enters a space that I like to call anti-biography, in synthesis, Pablo Larraín uses the praxis of biographical cinema but not its aims nor much less its structure. Basically, we would be calling this style of narration, a kind of narrative dichotomy, in which two concepts of biography are molded, taking opposite paths, the thesis of the biographical drama and the anti-thesis of it. An aggressive collision that Larraín gives them perfect synthesis, somewhat bizarre yes, but expertly executed.

Starting from this antithetical genre as Larraín’s peculiar style of filmmaking, then we could say that Spencer is the consummate act of this peculiarity. This film takes as its vociferous central character to personify and vocalize this powerful therapy of extraction of suffocating emotions, the famous, glamorous and aristocratic figure of the beautiful Princess Diana, played by a formidable Kristen Stewart, where it subjectively and speculatively delves into the 3 critical days in the sentimental life of the Princess of Wales. To be more specific, the film focuses on the days leading up to Christmas 1991, where the British royal family goes to spend those Christmas holidays at the opulent house of Sandringham. In that massive and lavish country house, Princess Diana experiences an existential crisis due to the constant amorous deceptions of her husband Charles, the Prince of Wales played by Jack Farthing, and threateningly but always revealingly, this asphyxiating crisis ends up alienating her from her family life, locking herself in her compulsive and even self-destructive thoughts until leading to a fragile and delirious psychological state.

The plot follows a progressive course, where the nightmare begins grotesquely severe and slowly reaches a peak even more extreme than the first episodes of surrealism suffered by Princess Diana. However, the psychoanalytic rigor of the narrative generates in the character a terrifying, though necessary, search for her identity as a person and not as the Princess of Wales. That introspective exercise leads her to self-analysis and cathartic expulsion of frustrating and painful emotions that end in self-compassion and understanding of the origin of her pathologies to the point of making drastic decisions that make her reborn.

The film does not try to be a film about Diana, nor is it a film about the futile and uninteresting lives of the British royals; on the contrary, it wants to avoid being something biographically attached to the fraudulent objectivity of describing the life of someone famous. Yet, despite completely divorcing itself from the norms of biographical cinema, especially Hollywood, what it does do is empathetically approach Princess Diana’s personality. Organically, Spencer feels more like a psychological portrait of Diana than of her per se, here we see a Princess Diana far from the paparazzi and philanthropy that characterized her, nor do we see her displaying fabulous dresses for the best magazines, here we observe intimately, and obsessively, her maternal idealism and her feminine liberalism continuously with nuanced empathetic directions, a sensitive character study.

The aesthetics of drama in Spencer benefit from an immaculate symmetrical formality, a complex elaboration of compositions that vitalize the visual narrative by juxtaposing reality with unreality. The precise focus given to these cinematic qualities is essential to the creation of this assaulting journey into the tormented mind of Princess Diana. Intricate space is given to materialize the character’s state of mind with details that at times seem minimal, but in reality are gigantically complex, such as a quasi-cacophonous use of sounds that penetrate the ghostly atmosphere of the aristocratic walls of the palatial house in which the film takes place, having an ominous function that effectively infects Princess Diana’s emotional turmoil.

Larraín’s direction, production design and masterful visual symbology are worthy of praise, but if we were to put together a hierarchy of highlights, that would rightfully be Kristen Stewart’s committed and riveting performance as Diana. It’s a superb performance, pure bravura, and emphatically, Stewart absorbs the fragility, anxiety and subtleties of the Princess of Wales with comprehensive intuition, it’s as if this role has been waiting for her forever, and unquestionably, the result is more than laudable, it’s uncomfortably faultless, full of hyperbolic gestures that explore the character’s fears and existential questions with complete dexterity. Kristen Stewart proves that when she falls into the right hands and the optimal productions for her, she ends up bringing out the best of her acting powers. Princess Diana has her cathartic cry here in Spencer, yet it’s impossible not to avoid thinking that it’s Stewart’s as well; there’s certainly an empathetic correspondence between the two that is poignantly expressed in this limpid film.

Perhaps it is too early to say that Spencer is a full-fledged masterpiece, but its bold and narratively experimental attitude tells us that this is Pablo Larraín’s masterpiece, not only because it fulfills its filmic and narrative objectives, but also because it resolves its complexities without taking misleading detours. It is a film that embraces the difficult and the unexpected and the obsessively idiosyncratic, analogous to great cinema.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.