Combustible Celluloid
With: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Olga Hellsing, Thomas Douglas, Mathias Wolkowski, Oriana Gordon, Amy Manson, Ryan Wichert, John Keogh, Niklas Kohrt, Elizabeth Berrington
Written by: Steven Knight
Directed by: Pablo Larraín
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Running Time: 111
Date: 11/05/2021

Spencer (2021)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Di Hard

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín makes more than just biopics, but the three that he's made so far, Jackie (2016), Neruda (2016), and the new Spencer, have been exemplary. Like the earlier two, Spencer employs an impeccable visual design and brilliant music with compartmentalized editing, and dashes of art and history, to paint an unconventional, yet universal picture. I should note that I'm not really an anglophile, and I'm not one of those folks that tune in to see every major royal family event; I wasn't even sure I'd find Spencer interesting at all. But I think it's one of the year's best.

It takes place over the course of three days, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day, presumably in the year 1992, though the film doesn't say. Diana, the Princess of Wales (an incredible Kristen Stewart) is forced to spend the holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England. Unexpectedly, she appears, driving herself in a tiny convertible sports car. Unused to driving, and unused to being alone, she becomes lost. She walks into a small fish-n-chip shop to ask for directions, and the patrons can only stare at her, slack-jawed.

She finally runs into the head chef of the estate (Sean Harris), one of the few people Diana can be honest with. She also discovers her old boarded-up family home, and a scarecrow that evokes fond memories for her (it wears her father's old coat). She finally arrives, late, to the shock of the rest of the family. She meets the soft-spoken, unsmiling Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), who seems to be in charge of making sure the holidays run smoothly, and on schedule. ("It's as if they've already happened," Diana sighs.)

Diana is shown a selection of dresses that are to be worn to all the scheduled meals and events, and she is told that she's late for sandwiches. In an ordinary biopic, we'd see her showing up for sandwiches and being confronted by her family, but we don't. We mainly see her by herself, or with one or two other people, her boys William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry) — with whom she shares a wonderfully playful relationship — and her sour husband Charles (Jack Farthing), as well as with various dressers. (Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins in a bobbed hairdo, is her favorite.)

These scenes give Diana a chance to claw and rip at her inner miseries, miseries that must be buttoned back up inside and kept under a serene surface for whatever the next event is. She sobs, talks to her father's coat, and even snips at her arm with a pair of wire cutters. She also reads a book about Anne Boleyn, the 16th century queen of England, and wife of Henry VIII, who was accused of treason and beheaded. Diana no doubt sees some kind of parallel between herself and Anne; she even begins to see visions of Anne on the estate, and wonders whether Major Gregory placed the book in her room on purpose. Even Maggie seems to disappear and re-appear; we're never sure she was ever there.

The few times we see Diana among the royals, she's posed elegantly and sadly, in tableau with the others, perhaps even frozen, totally shut down. She does the same when an array of lumpy, uncouth male photographers, pushed together like a massive beast to bombard her with flashbulb flares; she's stone cold, but still beautiful and regal. Then, an unscheduled, unapproved outing with Maggie unlocks something in Diana, and she unleashes gasps and laughs as if they'd been locked up for years, building pressure.

Even though Spencer seems to unfold in only two acts: one in which Diana suffers and another in which she escapes, I think Larraín has created a great, or near-great, film here. Every aspect of the picture is devoted to Diana's inner life. The movie is meticulously, faultlessly designed (the Christmas decorations are glorious). Larraín's camera follows her through the rooms, more often than not from right-to-left, or from behind; he followed Natalie Portman's Jackie Onasis in a similar fashion. This gives an impression of a tiger pacing his cage. It's an unnatural way to move.

When she's not moving, Diana is often trapped, as in a harrowing scene in which she's alone with Charles next to a billiard table, or in another in which she follows the Queen and her corgis out onto the front steps, then plops down and is framed by the railings, which curve inward, nearly crushing her. Elsewhere, Larraín elevates her paranoia and her slipping sense of reality. Characters frequently complain about being cold in the estate, and it's mentioned many times that "everyone hears everything."

Even Larraín's opening shots suggest something other than a lavish costume affair (although Diana's costumes are dazzling): two early images are a gnarled tree branch invading an otherwise serene countryside, and a dead pheasant in the road. Another sequence will rival anything seen in The Favourite. Diana shows up for dinner and is served a textureless lawn-green soup. She's wearing pearls that were a gift from her husband (the same pearls were also given to his mistress). A small orchestra plays soft string music. She begins tugging at her pearls until they break and spill everywhere. She eats the soup, chomping down on the pearls and swallowing them, as the band's music becomes screechier, more cacophonous and more terrifying. (Jonny Greenwood's score is a powerhouse.)

The film's ending is the only thing that left me a little off-kilter, simply because it's so straightforward. As Diana gazes off into the distance, we can only imagine that she's looking into the future, and, as viewers, we must know that she died just a few years later, in a tragic auto accident. But an important line of dialogue earlier in the film — written by Steven Knight, of Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, and Locke — comes from Diana, to her children. She explains that, in this house, there is no future, and past and present are the same thing. (Later, Larraín makes a wonderful play on the word "present," having to do with Christmas.) Even if her future was all too brief, it was better than none at all.

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