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Haunting ‘Spencer’ is a passionate, aching portrait of its icon

Haunting ‘Spencer’ is a passionate, aching portrait of its icon

Haunting ‘Spencer’ is a passionate, aching portrait of its icon
November 12
12:00 2021

“Here in this house, there is no future. Past and the present are the same thing.”

What does it mean to have lived nearly your entire adult life under the microscope of the media? To be a public face for a system that restricts you tightly? The same system which seeks to swallow up your sons? These are the questions at the core of director Pablo Larraín’sSpencer,” a daunting psychological drama starring Kristen Stewart as Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales. Set over Christmas weekend in 1991, Diana is tightly wound, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has all but given up on hiding his unfaithfulness, her concern for her sons has reached a breaking point and the Royal Family seeks only to tighten its already vise-like grip on her.  

Rather than a straightforward biopic, director Larraín and writer Steven Knight focus on a contained period of time in order to more thoroughly explore its subject. Larraín makes it clear in the introductory credits — this is a “fable from a true tragedy.” While some might take issue with its loose interpretation of facts, “Spencer” is a vivid portrait of a dynamic human being, anchored by a true tour de force performance from star Stewart and everyone involved. 

As Diana, Stewart weaves the princess’s immense social grace with the unseen-to-the-public toll of living a life under strict scrutiny. Her take on Diana is intensely introspective, trying to enjoy what she has with her sons while mentally unraveling amid the sheer amount of pressure. Even at her most distraught, Stewart maintains a simmering spark of resilience and genuine joy for her own sons and friends. Even in the more uncomfortable moments, Stewart’s radiant performance emotionally grounds “Spencer” as much as it elevates it, as much a resurrection as it is a dramatization. 

Among the supporting cast, the MVP is by far Timothy Spall as Major Gregory, a cryptic specter of a man. He intrigues as much as he intimidates with Spall providing a disquieting presence with his gaunt manner and chilling eyes. Sally Hawkins also shines as close friend Maggie, with her own kindness serving as much of a warm fire for Diana as it does the audience in the frigid Christmas air. 

The script is by far going to be the most divisive here, with Larraín and writer Steven Knight crafting a gothic, reflective exploration of their protagonist. While the story is mostly straightforward, it occasionally goes into the surreal to illuminate Diana’s emotional state and her own fascination with a past royal figure. Knight isn’t subtle about this being a straight-up ghost story, something brought up repeatedly by Diana herself, but it also makes for a very novel approach to a worn genre. The story’s own ponderings on Diana’s independence reflected through the choice to title the film after her surname, which also makes for a very somber tale. 

Visually, Larraín and cinematographer Claire Mathon also paint a very beautiful movie, with “Spencer” being an absolute feast for the eyes. Larraín keeps the camera close to his characters, pulling back only to take in lush panoramas or explore some more abstract imagery. He rarely leaves Diana. Mathon, fresh off “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” brings a soft, gloomy aesthetic to convey the chilly, lush atmosphere of the Royal Family’s Christmas compound. The night sequences also pull heavily from old ghost stories and even film noir, Diana often silhouetted against the lit mansion and bands of light breaking through the clouds. 

Musician Jonny Greenwood of “Radiohead” also turns in a frantic score, combining a number of styles to create a disconcerting score. While Greenwood does compose a traditional grand orchestral sound, he also combines jazz and a more baroque noise to underline Diana’s mental state. The result begets a disquieting effect, building during uncomfortable moments and absolutely elating during the climax. A suitably unconventional score for an unconventional experience, overall. 

While “Spencer” may repel as much as it entices through Larraín and co.’s very experimental approach, it’s undeniable how sublimely it fits the material. Director Larraín and Stewart deliver one of the best biopics in recent memory and submit a ghost story of the best kind. As stark as it is grounded, “Spencer” is an elegy for the ages.

Will’s final rating: 4.5/5 

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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