Cinematic Releases: Spencer (2021) - Reviewed

Courtesy of NEON
Pablo LarraĆ­n’s Spencer, the Chilean filmmaker’s latest film following his 2016 English-language biographical drama Jackie and his recently released Chilean drama Ema, is either Darren Aronofsky or Florian Zeller’s answer to the hit Netflix show The Crown.  Starring Kristen Stewart in what could be the role of her career as a neurotic and anxious Diana, Princess of Wales, the film is less of a conventional historical period drama adorned with sumptuous set pieces and the formalities of British royalty than it is an attempt to look into Diana’s fragile and fraying psyche tearing itself apart at the seams.

A fictional account of Princess Diana’s separation from her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) alongside interactions with her Royal Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) whose character may or may not always really be there and Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (veteran actor Timothy Spall in top form as ever), Spencer mostly is an attempt to create the experience of what it must’ve felt like to walk in Diana’s shoes at a pivotal moment in her life.  On the one hand the film from the outset should appeal to period piece buffs keen on the recent Netflix series set to release a fifth season.  In reality, however, this is an unconventional, difficult film prone to flights of fancy and moments of surreal provocation that, yes, reminded me of such recent shockers as Titane or Swallow.

While the notion of casting American actress Kristen Stewart (in her most luminous and complex role to date) in the role of British Diana, Princess of Wales should raise the eyebrows of history buffs calling for authenticity, artistically speaking it makes perfect sense.  Diana was an outsider who came into the Royal Family and casting an American lead in the role only furthers the film’s characterization of Diana as feeling perpetually alienated by the world she finds herself inhabiting.  Let it be said too that Stewart embodies and exudes onscreen every neurotic anxious, fearful, even hallucinatory feeling Princess Diana must’ve felt to be in such an overwhelming position with no real room for her to be herself.

Visually, lensed with painterly precision by Claire Mathon, this is the most beautiful looking Super 16mm 1.66:1 period drama of its kind since Todd Haynes’ Carol.  It can also be, at times, deliberately suffocating to look at with key sequences in deliberately dull and muted colors.  Then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson stalwart Jonny Greenwood’s nerve wracking, anxiety filled atonal score echoing the stress filled menacing vibes of his score for The Master.  While most viewers by this point are used to digesting media about royalty at home, Spencer is most certainly a film that calls for being seen and heard theatrically as the film’s distinctive and controlled visual palette combined with the arresting (and claustrophobic) sound design further exemplifies the fear and dysfunctionality of the Diana character.

Let it be known Spencer isn’t meant to be the final word on the ongoing mystery of Princess Diana’s life and death.  Rather it is an attempt to dissect the frail and perhaps damaged nature of the Royal Family’s most popular outsider who may have stolen the thunder of her soon-to-be ex-husband.  This isn’t always easy viewing (I cringed in horror a couple times) including but not limited to dramatizations of moments where Diana either maimed herself or succumbed to bulimia, but as such Spencer is a fascinating if not abrasive character study sure to be one of the year’s strongest Awards contenders.  If nothing else, see it for one of the year’s best performances by one of the film industry’s strongest A-list actresses.

--Andrew Kotwicki