‘Spencer’ review

  • Director: Pablo Larraín 
  • Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet 
  • Genre: Drama 
  • Country / Language: UK, USA, Germany, Chile / English 
  • Duration: 1 hr 51 min 
  • Release date: November 19, 2021 (India) 

The first line uttered by Kristen Stewart as Diana in the movie ‘Spencer’ is “Where the f**k am I?” At this scene, Princess Diana is in her car on the way to Sandringham Castle to meet up for the royal family’s Christmas dinner. She is in the middle of nowhere and getting late. Being lost in life and, more importantly, finding herself in a place she never expected is the general logline to Diana’s adult life as we all have come to know. 

The late Princess of Wales’ tragic life story is ripe for cinema and has been adapted over and over for various films and shows. We have Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ with Emma Corrin as the wide-eyed and young Diana as well as ‘Diana: The Musical’ released a few months back. ‘Diana’ (with Naomi Watts, 2006) is another noteworthy biopic. And then we have ‘The Queen’ (with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II) which takes a look at Diana’s death and its impact on the Royal family. An FX series titled ‘Feud: Charles and Diana’ was in scripting stage headed by writer Ryan Murphy (of the famed ‘American Horror Story’ series) which has not come to fruition yet. And there’s many more books and plays. 

And now, we have Chilean director Pablo Larraín (‘Jackie’, 2016) tackling the subject. In Larraín’s hands, ‘Spencer’ is an intimate domestic story but infused with a sense of subdued horror and escalating anxiety. The director of ‘Jackie’, which is also about a renowned white woman stuck in a gilded cage, is at home here with the material. Spencer’, which follows Diana’s few days at the Scottish Castle, is not a flashy epic film that we have come to expect from biographical dramas. It is also not about the more buzz-worthy events in Spencer’s life such as courting and marriage with Prince Charles, or the divorce, or the philanthropic efforts nor her rise to fame. 

Instead the film looks at, or perhaps attempts to reimagine, Diana’s last few days before she comes to a realization regarding the reality of Royal life, thus initiating her divorce. ‘Spencer’ is thus like a swan song that mourns the death of Diana’s freedom and the misery of her married life, while also celebrating a spiritual rebirth that the Princess supposedly underwent during the Christmas stay. 

Nobody really knows what happened behind the walls of the Castle so a lot of the scenes here are simply guesses. Perhaps nothing dramatic actually underwent between Diana and the Royal family. Thus, what Larraín’s movie does is mythologize, as well as romanticize, the figure of Princess Diana by drawing parallels between her and Anne Boleyn, the 16th century queen who was beheaded by her husband Henry the VIII because he wanted to replace her with his new lover as queen. We are given a vision of Queen Anne haunting the castle in her Medieval gown. At one point, Diana herself is dressed in this garb and running down the corridors. We are also given a Gothic-influenced scene complete with an old boarded-up mansion, a crumbling staircase and evening mist. 

Metaphors abound in this film scripted by Steven Knight (‘Amazing Grace’, 2006). The pheasant is meant to symbolize Diana. In one scene, Kristen Stewart looks straight at the pheasant and calls it beautiful but dumb, almost as if she’s calling herself that. Then of course, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is shooting these pheasants and encouraging his reluctant sons to do the same. Perhaps this scene is assuming that behind closed doors, the Prince of Wales attempted to turn his children against their mother. In Diana’s chamber, the ,crtains are stitched together in order to prevent the paparazzi from photographing her, almost like a gilded prison. And the pearl necklace gifted to her by her husband is pretty, but also suffocating. Necklaces can be an indicator of love, but here it is a reminder of infidelity because the same necklace is later mentioned to have been gifted to Charles’ mistress Camilla (now Duchess of Cornwall) as well. 

Kristen Stewart’s turn as the People’s Princess has been lauded by audiences and critics alike as tremendous performance. However, this author feels like her efforts seemed a bit forced and stiff. As if Stewart isn’t so much inhabiting the ghost of Diana but simply mimicking her by adopting certain quirks that make Spencer unique. Such as her neck slightly bent to the right, her demureness, almost whisper-y soft speech. And the posh accent of course. Regardless, Stewart pulls off what would have been impossible for a lot of actors. So an Academy Award nomination for Lead Actress is inevitable. A special mention must also go to Stacey Panepoint for the outstanding make-up of Stewart, making Stewart’s physical transformation into Diana Spencer astonishingly convincing. 

In addition, Sally Hawkins (‘The Shape of Water’, ‘Paddington’), who plays Maggie, Diana’s confidant and admirer, is just splendid. And we, just like Spencer, miss her when she is not around. Her scenes with Hawkins offer a ray of sunshine in Diana’s life, making them one of the more energized scenes in an otherwise morose film. 

Secondly, Stewart’s scenes with her onscreen sons William and Harry are filled with wonder, love and affection as the playfulness and adorableness of Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry lighten up the screen. 

Jack Farthing (‘Poldark’, ‘The Riot Club’), who plays Prince Charles, doesn’t offer much to the film and his scenes are fleeting. Meanwhile Stella Gonet, who dutifully essays the role of Queen Elizabeth II, is even more brief in her scenes. And we question the actress’ choice to adopt a low pitched voice when playing a personality who is well known for having a high-pitched chirpy voice. 

However, the real saving grace of this film is not the makeup or the supporting turns from Hawkins, Nielen and Spry but the phenomenal score by Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood is an English musician who also scorer the soundtrack for 2017’s ‘Phantom Thread’ and this year’s ‘Power of the Dog’. Greenwood’s compositions carry the first half of the film almost entirely on his back because the music takes a life of its own. It floats around the characters like an invisible entity that is haunting the castle and observing its inhabitants. With this music, ‘Spencer”s first half becomes a film with a foreboding sense of doom, perhaps hinting at the Princess’ tragic early demise. But the second half is brighter. Combining the sound with the visual sequences of a young and free Diana charging through the Castle yard like a warrior and then contrasting them with adult Diana aimlessly wandering the halls like a lost ghost feel like a sort of a requiem. But like a symphony, it crescendoes at the scene where Diana rediscovers a sense of freedom and passion still burning away inside her. It is a brilliant sequence that feels like a baptism or spiritual rebirth of a maturer, wiser Diana who no longer wishes to carry on with her soul-deadening marriage or the continued association with a family that has done its best to crush her spirits. 

Barring the chilling score and the Gothic style narrative, ‘Spencer’ does not offer any new insight into Diana’s life. As mentioned before, the first half of the movie is bland and overly quietened down. The second half is where things pick up. However, it is still worth a watch for the music and for Diana fans who will get to witness a slightly enticing, if wandering, portrait of the Princess through Pablo Larraín’s super grainy lens. 

‘Spencer’ is currently playing in theatres.

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