Spencer (2021)

Spencer (2021) Directed by Pablo Larraín

“A Fable from a Real Tragedy”, I consider it of utmost importance to open this review of what is arguably Pablo Larrain’s best film with that aphoristic, beautifully laconic initial expression with which he prefaces Spencer’s sumptuous world and its idiosyncrasies. Nothing is conventional in a film by this Chilean director who has earned my respect and sincere admiration over the years. Each of his films has captivated me but Spencer – his most intrepid cinematic endeavor – is the one that has made me completely fall in love with his filmmaking. Upon learning that his next film would be nothing less than a loose quasi-biographical interpretation of one of Britain’s most controversial and influential royals, I felt – erroneously of course – that it would be the first film in his filmography to shatter my fervor for his style. Yet it was quite the opposite, it strengthened it. My deliberate ignorance about the royal family gave me the false impression that this would be a banal and boring film about vain people. Maybe in the hands of another filmmaker that would have been true but my audacity made me forget that Larrain was behind this project and I forgot that if there is any filmmaker adept at crafting biographies and heterodox dramas it is Pablo Larrain. The quote with which the film opens seems to reflect the prejudice I had; I’ve always stated that only great works of cinema expressly tell you how they have to be seen. Somehow, the fact that this film declares itself to be a fable based on real events tells us in advance that both fiction and reality will flirt intensely throughout the film. This fabulous gesture allows us to be intellectually swayed by the fictional substance of the narrative and yet at the same time emotionally experience the subjectivity of a critical moment in the life of the Princess of Wales. Each sensation is freely interpretable, yet its visceral language is so universal that the effects seem to evoke more reality than fiction.

When fiction and reality are juxtaposed, paradoxes are to be expected. There are plenty of them here. In fact, I am so far unable to elucidate the specific purpose of this film. It is an exercise in formal symmetry, it is replete with non-narrative elements, it is highly ethereal and despite its grotesque surrealism that instills dread and a self-destructive mood it is sincerely compassionate. That’s a lot of ingredients that don’t specify much but enrich the tale. The scheme is ceremonious and classy:  three days, three acts and a cathartic finale. It takes place on the Christmas Eve of 1991, at the Queen’s opulent country home, Sandringham House. The British royal family customarily spends three days there to celebrate the festive season. For the Queen (Stella Gonet) and the other members of the family they are just another routine day, for Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) they are three days of hell and introspection. These are decisive days for the divine, rebellious and always graceful Princess of Wales, not only must she endure the inquisitive stares of the Queen and her husband, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), but she must also tolerate the rigorous rituals of British royalty. She lives in a severe depression and does not know how to escape from it because she must always show herself as the British people want, graceful, philanthropic and blissful. In addition, she knows that Prince Charles is furtively seeing another woman; his infidelity is blatant, and he is callous and indifferent towards her. Her two young sons, William and Harry, are the only ones who give Diana moments of merriment and satisfaction. This is the foundation for assembling what I would like to call an anti-biography. In other words, it elementally adopts the common framework of a biography that portrays a famous person but subverts the mechanics. Pablo Larrain’s unconventional filmmaking denies protocols, it is a film that slyly takes winding, treacherous and convoluted paths but remains unfailingly functional.

Just as Larrain’s masterful direction is one of the film’s most pleasant surprises, so is Kristen Stewart’s superlative performance. Her portrayal of Princess Diana is one of the most affecting performances I have seen in recent years. It is one that can be maligned and even detested by an audience that believes that overacting is equivalent to overexpression; they are not the same thing. Stewart takes Diana’s cosmetic beauty as tactical and premeditated, showing fragility in her attractiveness and diffidence in her glamour, it is manifestly an uncomfortable performance, replete with mannerisms and over-the-top gesticulations that externalize her tribulations and woes with unprecedented honesty. Her over-expressive acting dovetails harmoniously with the aesthetic density of the cinematography. The film is titled after Princess Diana’s aristocratic surname, Spencer, a vivid reference to her identity as a woman before she became part of the British royal family. Remarkably, the film is nourished by a commiseration for Princess Diana, not an exaltation of her character per se, but of the overwhelming influence she has had on the world. Here Princess Diana is portrayed far from her glamorous life in front of the paparazzi who obsessively idolize and objectify her. In Spencer, she is searching for her former identity, she wants to stop being the princess of Wales and reconnect with her true self. A journey of this nature demands a deep character study, which I believe the filmmakers succeeded in examining with undisguised gusto. Princess Diana’s tumultuous feelings connect terrifyingly with the mood of a literary ghost tale. In effect, the narration relates Diana’s sorrows and experiences to those of Anne Boleyn – an illustrious ghost who haunts the corridors of the queen’s lavish palace. The sophisticated symmetrical form of the mise-en-scene conjures up an eerie parallel between present and past life, intertwining temporalities not in a physical space but in a metaphysical realm. The private life of Princess Diana turned into folklore by the prejudices and veneration of her admirers and detractors. It is undoubtedly a supernatural portrait of the disturbed psyche of an aristocratic celebrity that somehow seems closer to the proletarian humility and humanistic empathy of the common people than to the monarchic vanity. I want to indulge myself in believing that Pablo Larrain’s Spencer is a ghost story.

The exceptional Claire Mathon, one of the most competent cinematographers working in the medium, provides poignancy and fleshed out layers to Larrain’s vision by loading the film with representative colors that encompass Diana’s emotional state. Everything is focused on Diana; it is a film that seems to be preoccupied with pursuing more than just compassion for her. The plot surrounds this character and confines her in a soliloquy that never ceases to be penetrating and compulsive until it becomes dense and even mystifying. In fact, the film is edited with a system of compartmentalized cuts that artfully seeks to externalize Diana’s psychological vulnerability. One would expect this cinematic exercise to be a suicidal and hazardous move in practice, yet Larrain grasps his world and the style that shapes it with absolute assertiveness. The latter is apparent in how the film’s ending, instead of being bleak and destructive, is vibrant, upbeat and indulgent. Many will argue that it’s a maudlin flaw, others that it’s a cheesy way to end something so artistically robust, but for me it was the most suitable attitude to wrap up these burdensome three days in Diana’s mind. It’s sugary and rhetorical, but it functions as a necessary miracle. In the end it is what Diana deserves as a cathartic payoff and we receive her gratitude as the audience that testified to her tribulations and ultimately her myths, keep in mind it is a fable, not real life.

I’m still not sure if it is a full-fledged masterpiece, its effects induce me to think that it is a masterwork; however, I still don’t dare to affirm it, only time will judge. Spencer is great cinema considered holistically, seen alone within Larrain’s filmography, this is the Chilean director’s masterpiece. If there is any sense in what I just said. Spencer’s philosophy aims to open up the wondrous possibilities of narrative filmmaking across the spectrum of reality, and its results, I believe, are revelatory. It is a powerful summation of what cinema is capable of doing when examining the human psyche.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching films, I'm writing about them.
Editor and Official Film Critic at Celluloid Dimension

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