Spencer (2021) – A Modern Woman Trapped in an Ancient Institution

Ever since her premature death in 1997, Princess Diana has remained one of the most beloved and iconic figures in recent history. She remains a major part of pop culture to this day, joining the ranks of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean as young deaths that captured the imagination of an entire world and the one yet to come. Even before her death she famously captured the zeitgeist of the world with her modern attitudes and human rights activism. But it was famously a life fraught with difficulty and pain, and it is important to remember that even if you think she looked smashing in her “revenge dress” and applaud her bravery for daring to speak up on taboo subjects like AIDS or for critiquing the royal family, she was still a living and breathing human being who experienced much pain and unwanted attention in her fairly short life. I can’t personally say I’m an expert or anything and I know very little about her but from what I’ve heard, read and seen she seemed to me to be a very down-to-earth, gentle and warm person who suffered a terrible fate. And what I think is the brilliance of Pablo Larraín’s new biopic of Diana called Spencer is how it paints for us a psychological portrait of a woman who desperately needed help and some sort of liberation.

As previously stated, the film centers around Diana (Kristen Stewart) and rather than making this a sweeping and all-encompassing portrayal of her life (for that go watch The Crown, it’s pretty good), it focuses on a single weekend in Sandringham House, the weekend of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (no clue what Boxing Day means, I’m Swedish) in 1991. Diana’s relationship with her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is on the rocks due to his recent affair, and Diana is acting increasingly neurotic as she feels suffocated by the royal family, Sandringham and the whole notion of living in royalty.

What makes the film work superbly for me is how well it manages to bring us inside Diana’s psyche and mindset of this period to truly make us understand all of the pain she must’ve gone through. Even the title of the film is a nod to Diana’s sense of losing sight of her own identity as her family name Spencer is virtually being erased by the mere pressures of living life with the royal family who just seem like the most toxic bunch of people on earth. They’re still living in their ancient understanding of strict traditions and duty whereas Diana is much more modern and closer to the average citizen than any royalty no matter how hard she tries. Charles says to Diana at one point that there must be two of her, the one the press photograph and performs her duties at public events, and the private real person. But it is the second person, the real human being, that is floundering amidst waves of apathy and lack of understanding. With so much well-warranted discussion of mental health in today’s world I think this angle feels particularly contemporary and refreshing, at least when we’re talking biopics which rarely try this because I think this is something cinema does so well as a medium. The dresses, the sounds of the food being prepared, the haunting dream scenes that give the feeling of impending doom, it’s what the cinema is very much for in my opinion. In fact, the film I think Spencer resembles the most is Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which similarly tried to paint a psychological portrait of a controversial figure of history through a modern lense.

As you all know, Diana is played in this film by Kristen Stewart. This is only the second film I’ve seen her in (the first being Panic Room) so I literally had no idea what the quality of her performance would be. For all I knew it could’ve been brilliant or downright laughable, but fortunately it was the former. It is a knockout of a performance of Stewart and it’s all the more impressive when considering the work that needs to be done for this. According to people who knew Diana, Stewart has been the one closest to the real person. But more important than mere historical accuracy and mannerisms, she isn’t trying to portray Diana the fashion icon or something to that effect. Knight’s script wisely chooses to focus on the little moments of Diana’s life to fully portray her as a living, breathing human being. This helps make her more relatable as a character because she feels real. Even if she doesn’t get nominated for any major awards she will still have delivered one of the finest performances of any actor this year. So to say I’m excited to see her in the upcoming David Cronenberg film is quite an understatement.

Then there is the score for the film, provided by the great Jonny Greenwood, which is especially haunting and helps give the film it’s oppressive nature. Critic Mark Kermode described the score as a “string quartet gone to hell” and I don’t think you could come up with a more apt description of just how haunting the score is. The use of a church organ, a looming bass and strings that could have been conducted by Penderecki makes the score sound like a horror movie. I’ve heard many people compare the score and some of the visuals to The Shining and it’s a surprisingly fair comparison as much of the piece gives off horror or thriller vibes. And when it isn’t a string quartet performing a concert of madness, it morphs into avant-garde jazz that made me feel as if Miles Davis had risen from beyond the grave merely to score this film. And then, breaking away from all of this, there is a needle drop towards the end that I frankly thought was so terrific I’ve been listening to the song constantly despite in the past merely thinking of it as a cheesy 80s pop ballad. But it not only works well for the film, it works for Diana as a character as well. I won’t give away the song because I think it should be experienced along with the rest of the film but I promise dear readers that it’s terrific.

As I close this review, I turn to the great late Roger Ebert and his great quote which for me best summarizes my warm feelings towards Spencer: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that, to me, is the most noble thing that good movies can do and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.”


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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