Spencer

Spencer ★★★★

The royal biopic has become a cinematic force of its own in recent years. From Netflix’s The Crown (2016-), to Oscar-winning films such as The Queen (2006), these stories have become the subject of immense critical acclaim. Yet, despite the genre’s success, Chilean director Pablo Larraín is willing to take risks. Rather than translating to screen what historians have speculated over the years, Larraín’s film blends elements of truth with swathes of fiction to deliver an arthouse fairytale.

This much is clarified when the obligatory ‘based on a true story’ reminder is replaced with ‘a fable from a true tragedy’. What follows is a relatively simple, yet audacious tale: the royal family arrives at the Sandringham estate to enjoy the festive period.
When Princess Diana arrives late and uninterested, however, the celebrations are cut short and the family turmoil begins. Over the course of three days, our titular protagonist must come to terms with the hostile institution that houses her, whilst dealing with her ever-worsening mental health issues.

It is here that the film finds its power, fighting fantasy with fantasy as a means of deconstructing the late princesses’ cult of personality. In doing so, screenwriter Steven Knight provides a character study that balances grounded realism with phantasmagorical horror, without ever creating dissonance between the two. The same challenging script is relished by Kristen Stewart, who delivers a powerhouse performance that gets under the skin of both Diana and the audience. Her interpretation of the protagonist is a spectacle of its own – a corporeal body, haunted by the mythology surrounding it, that bears the weight of the world on its shoulders. Is it Sisyphus, or is it Diana? Most importantly, Stewart rejects basic imitation and delivers a versatile performance that helps us understand this character in a way that didacticism never could.

On this note, Spencer diverges from the cult of realism we’ve come to expect over the years. A whole host of fictional texts – from The King’s Speech (2010), to AAA gaming blockbusters like The Last of Us series (2013-) – have diluted the potential of their specific mediums in favour of realist aesthetics. For a film, all you need are a few basic elements and you're at least guaranteed a nomination or two: these include historical imitation, attentive set design, and a moral message that relates to contemporary society. The result is less cinema, more re-enactment.

Fortunately, writer Steven Knight has no interest in these self-imposed restrictions. You only have to watch BBC’s Peaky Blinders (2013-) to see that his period-pieces are injected with hefty doses of exaggeration. Brummie gangsters of the 1920s never walked the cobbles to Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, but it’s the spectacle that counts. The same audiovisual grandeur is what Knight’s cinematic work engages with, and Spencer is no exception.

Knight’s excess is cleverly employed in the visual motifs connected to our protagonist’s inner mind. These metaphors, whilst not exactly subtle, help piece together the film’s nightmarish psychoscape. These range from the weaponisation of food and its relation to Diana’s bulimia, to a gifted pearl necklace that becomes a mark of intergenerational bondage. With the latter symbol, Diana begins to question her own place in history, and whether she and Anne Boleyn are one and the same. Here, Knight’s script becomes an uncanny tale of split identity that is unafraid to switch genres, transforming the cozy biopic into a hellish ghost story without a moment’s notice.

These visual symbols are given sustenance by the film’s unsung hero: Claire Mathon. In her role as cinematographer, Mathon brings the fairytale to fruition through a complex array of compositions, from shaky closeups to expansive shots of the English countryside. A clear influence here is Barry Lyndon (1975) and cinematographer John Alcott’s use of natural lighting and symmetrical framing. Using similar techniques, Mathon curates a painterly exhibition that one can’t help but become absorbed in, justifying the film’s slow-burn pacing.

Another important individual is Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, who matches Diana’s frenetic interiority with a score that screeches and startles. On tracks like ‘Calling The Whipper In’, Greenwood channels a well-established influence, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and the violently dissonant strings that haunt his work. Contrarily, ‘Delusion / Miracle’ ditches violins for free-form jazz, a piece that effortlessly matches the fragmentation of our protagonist. Similar to Hans Zimmer's Dune OST, Greenwood’s compositions feel intrinsic to the film as a whole, giving its visual beauty an auditory framework from which to lean upon.

Regardless of the technical brilliance on display, there are questions to be asked of Knight’s script and its portrayal of mental illness. By naming the film Spencer, after Diana’s lesser-known maiden name, Knight and Larraín aim to re-evaluate their historical subject without reinforcing her tragic legacy. Not only do the two male creators fail, they arguably amplify the same populist myth we've become accustomed to. Stewart’s manic performance, whilst undeniably brilliant, ultimately perpetuates familiar tropes of female fragility and victimhood. The more surreal moments exacerbate these issues further, conflating Diana’s well-documented health issues with fictionalised symptoms of delusory schizophrenia. Although such moments are intended to be read metaphorically, there remains a problematic callousness on Knight’s behalf, torturing his subject further and profiting from the pain her legend feeds upon.

In spite of this, Spencer remains a fascinating subversion of the royal biopic. Knight’s script is sharp and inventive, embracing fiction and mining greater human truths in the process. Meanwhile, Pablo Larraín’s directorial presence is commanding throughout, unifying a team of virtuosos - Mathon, Greenwood, Stewart - who are firing on all cylinders. The outcome is an unexpectedly daring film that illustrates why Diana’s ghost haunts us to this day.

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