A collision of ghosts past and future haunt the present in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. By turns insidious and caustic, claustrophobic and free-wheeling, it is a nightmarish fairy-tale where little chance of a happily-ever-after exists. Exploring the powerlessness an exasperated Diana (Kristen Stewart) must confront when faced with Windsor tradition, expectation and hypocrisy, a single weekend in the country is the epicentre of a far broader story, the shockwaves of which ripple through space, time, mind and soul.
Told by an early inter-title that Spencer is a ‘fable from a true tragedy,’ there is a notable theatricality to the Chilean director’s latest film. Loosely constructed in three acts, the narrative weaves its way behind the closed doors – and indeed curtains – of the Sandringham Estate at Christmas in 1991. The film’s mercurial, topsy-turvy tone pokes fun at the farcical pomp and ceremony of stuffy procedure; the delivery of a gastronomical bounty with military precision; a ‘weigh-in’ that is conducted by Timothy Spall’s obsequious equerry Major Gregory to make sure guests put on at least a few pounds, demonstrating they made the most of the festivities. And yet the gleaming tableware and façade of good-natured fun are all too easily tarnished.
At once lavish and false, with privilege comes imprisonment, and the suffocating shroud thrown over all that occurs is overbearing. ‘Keep Noise to a Minimum. They Can Hear You’ states a sign hung ominously in the kitchen. No great emphasis is made of the upstairs/downstairs dynamic, as in Gosford Park, say, but these words most certainly apply to Diana as well as the staff. Keeping calm and carrying on is an option for no-one. Caught between her upbringing and current circumstance, but for the love of her sons, and against her own better judgement, the Princess of Wales is inexorably drawn – by obedience, obligation and forces beyond her control – to spend the holiday with her in-law’s family. Lost, both literally and metaphorically, she arrives to the house long after the orchestra have conducted their discordant warm-up, and, heaven forfend, after her Majesty has arrived with a car full of corgis.
“Will they kill me, do you think?” Diana asks of friend, confidant and resident chef, Darren (a moustachioed Sean Harris, a breath of fresh air in this sympathetic role), the tongue-in-cheek rhetorical question echoing through the years in our consciousness. Her only other ally comes in the form of dresser, Maggie (an ever-wonderful Sally Hawkins), who provides counsel and compassion. Describing herself as “a magnet for madness,” there are invisible but unavoidable forces at play here, harking back much further than you might imagine. Taking Diana’s point of view as an outsider, still, even after a decade of visiting the house and ostensibly being a member of the family, the push-and-pull of being mother to the future heir(s) to the crown and daughter-in-law to the Queen is inescapable.
Woozy and dreamlike, floating for close-ups both intrusive and inquisitive, French cinematographer Claire Mathon (who worked with Céline Sciamma on Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Petite Maman) does excellent work. A left to right tracking shot in the film’s latter stages may well be a homage to Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups, as we see Diana in stages through her life, running towards an ever-changing and uncertain future. Fractious and fragmented, there’s a troubling psychological edge to all of this that progressively deteriorates. Strained and brittle to the point of shattering, through gesture, body language, tense glances and superbly clipped delivery Stewart carries the film on slender shoulders, fierce yet fragile. And the bitter irony here is, of course, that we are scrutinising a public figure, hounded by the paparazzi, via a cinematic camera lens.
A rather meta observation, perhaps, but this, in turn, will no doubt have been all-too familiar to the actor embodying the People’s Princess. These reflective layers of meaning and self-reference are not laboured, but they certainly do linger, just as this microcosm spreads far and wide. Spencer’s pacing, at times as frosty and glacial as the mood, will prove irksome to some viewers. But it adequately reflects how the three days spent here are for Diana to endure, not enjoy. Likewise, the odd wry smile or wisecrack from a young Harry (Freddie Spry, terrific) aside, the film is not one to necessarily be enjoyed, but certainly admired and internalised.
Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary musical score – on a par with, if not exceeding, the finest work he has done for Paul Thomas Anderson since There Will Be Blood – deserves great credit. It probes, stabs, and occasionally soars as he cues into the emotional peaks and troughs ploughed by Larraín and his superb cast. Enveloped in late December cloud throughout, with only the occasional shaft of sunlight, Spencer asks what was, and what could have been.
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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63