BFI London Film Festival presents Spencer; in cinemas nationwide from November 5th
The tide seems to be turning against the UK Royal Family. What was once perceived as a touristic gemstone of British culture has given way to a suffocating institution led by an equal parts rotten and insidious bureaucracy known only as ‘The Firm.’ Like the British counterpart to Succession’s Roy family. Various scandals and maltreatment have seeped out of that fancily-dressed prison to reveal a far grimmer portrait of Royal life. A place where words are currency, double-lives are a necessity, and above all else, the decomposing corpse of tradition is the sole objective. It’s no wonder that Pablo Larraín’s Spencer feels like a never-ending nightmare.
Told over a Christmas at Sandringham, Spencer demonstrates its heart from its opening: a fictional fable of a real tragedy. This is not to be taken as historical gospel, partially because of the Royal Family’s iron-clad silence. After all, can we ever fully understand the scope or reality of Diana’s torment. Instead, this is an emotional excavation of her psyche, honing in on the suffocating claustrophobia of Royal life and the knife-edge she danced upon every day within it. Here, Spencer’s opening frames are reminiscent of The Shining. The inescapable scope of Sandringham set against the microscopic vehicle holding Diana. It’s beautifully haunting, impounding us with this Gothic sentimentality that Larraín plays with throughout.
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This is our last breath of space, as cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantics) pushes us closer and closer to Diana with erratic, unstable anxiety. Here Spencer feels like a Royal version of Shiva Baby. A solid psychological bond between Mathon’s camera and Kristen Stewart’s Diana creates a deep sense of intimacy, disconnecting us from everyone else around her. Meanwhile, moments with Timothy Spall’s Major Gregory or Sean Harris’ Chef Darren are impossibly still, as though frozen out of fear. It’s a talented marriage of style and substance that uplifts the Gothic sentimentality that Larraín instils into his feature.
As Diana pushes on, Mathon’s camera becomes more erratic, at times flying around Diana like a cinematic phantom, surrounding her with little-to-no escape. This emotional intimacy becomes suffocating, creating a physical manifestation of panic within the audience. For a moment, you are no longer watching how Diana feels but feeling it directly.
Kristen Stewart feels almost invisible in Spencer, perfectly encapsulating the emotional spirit and torment of her subject. Here, Kristen is tragically divine in her encapsulation of the emotionality and psychology of Diana, two crucial elements that led to the love and adoration she still receives today. It’s a fragmented Diana that Larraín follows, forced to separate herself for the Royal family, her children, and herself. Here Stewart has an acute understanding of the different reflections Diana portrayed. Her calculated and emotionally intelligent performance, enveloping you throughout. Her portrayal of Diana as someone teetering on the edge of destruction, held by a thin, luxurious thread.
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Like Diana, Stewart’s face displays a quiet resilience, and yet her hand trembles with a hidden scream at the same time. It’s as though Stewart’s Diana has been poisoned by melancholia yet refuses to accept it, pushing it to different parts of her body to hide it from the family and perhaps herself. Here Stewart achieves a universal and intense connection to the princess of hearts.
Spencer is secretly a Gothic psychological horror, but understatedly so. Larraín flirts with the genre by taking us directly inside Diana’s mental world at unexpected moments. Our closeness to Diana makes her an unreliable narrator, but Larraín skilfully plays on our trust in crafting some unsettling visual discordance. Here people appear and disappear at will, and dinners turn into nightmares without warning. At one point, Kristen’s Diana even remarks that to the Royal household, the past-and-present are one and the same – there is no future.
It is here that Spencer’s atmosphere reflects the horror of the Overlook Hotel. With Sandringham preying on the vulnerability of Diana’s mind in hosting a menagerie of horrors tailored to her. Had Spencer played into this more, it could easily have defined itself as one of the best horrors of the year. However, these elements serve as part of Larraín’s goal, rather than completing it.
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The fragmented performance at the heart of Spencer is underpinned by the magnificent musical dichotomy of Jonny Greenwood. There’s a constant battle between the reserved rigidity of a classical world and the emotional chaos of improvisational jazz. It’s a musical translation of the deafeningly silent struggle between the Royal family and Diana – when they zigged, she zagged. Jazz is a perfect metaphor for this individuality, as it plays by no rules; you have no idea where it may go next, nor what instruments may suddenly arrive. Jazz defies conformity by playing by its own rules, protecting its personality just as Diana attempted to do. And when Greenwood’s score, Mathon’s cinematography and Stewart’s performance combine, Spencer, becomes a powerfully dizzying journey of anxiety and psychological distress, pushing everything off-kilter and keeping it there.
Spencer is undoubtedly a career-defining performance for Kristen Stewart, one that pushes her toward a Best Actress nomination. And from Greenwood’s score to Mathon’s cinematography and Larraín’s masterful direction, it is one of the year’s best films.