Spencer – a dizzying journey into anxiety and psychological distress


BFI London Film Festival presents Spencer; in cinemas from November 5th.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The tide seems to be turning on the 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, upholding the decomposing corpse of tradition is life’s sole objective. It’s no wonder that Pablo Larraín’s Spencer feels like a never-ending nightmare.

Told over a Christmas at Sandringham, Spencer shows us its heart from its opening: a fictional tale of a real tragedy. This is not to be taken as historical gospel, partially because of the Royal Family’s iron-clad silence. Instead, this is an emotional excavation of her psyche, honing on the suffocating claustrophobia of Royal life and the knife edge she danced on every day. Spencer’s title shot is reminiscent of The Shining’s opening, as the inescapable scope of Sandringham is set against Diana’s microscopic vehicle. It’s beautifully haunting, impounding us with this Gothic sentimentality that Larraín plays with throughout.

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 an erratic, unstable anxiety – here, Spencer feels like a Royal version of Shiva Baby. There’s a strong psychological bond between Mathon’s camera and Kristen’s Diana that not only creates intimacy but doubles to disconnect us from everyone else. With moments like Timothy Spall’s Major Gregory or Sean Harris’ Chef Darren, the camera is impossibly still, as though frozen out of fear for acting out. It’s a talented marriage of style and substance that uplifts this Gothic sentimentality that Larraín instils into this 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 this physical reaction of panic. For a moment, you no longer just watch Diana; you feel how she is feeling.

Kristen Stewart feels invisible in Spencer, perfectly encapsulating the emotional spirit and torment of the figure she plays. Kristen is tragically divine in her encapsulation of the emotionality and psychology of Diana, two crucial elements that caused the sheer love and adoration she still receives today. It’s a fragmented Diana that Larraín follows, forced to separate herself from the Royals, for her children, and for herself. Stewart appears to have an acute understanding of Diana’s emotions and portrays them in a calculated and intelligent performance of a woman teetering on the edge of destruction, held by a single thin, luxurious thread. Like Diana, Stewart fragments her physicality to give multiple performances at once – her face may display a quiet resilience, and yet her hand trembles with a screaming violence. It’s as though Stewart’s Diana has been poisoned by the melancholic, yet refuses to accept it, pushing it to different parts of her body to hide it from not only the family but perhaps herself. What Stewart achieves with her performance is a universal intense connection to the princess, even to those who didn’t grow up with her or even know her.

Spencer is secretly a psychological Gothic horror, but understatedly so. Larraín flirts with the genre by taking us directly inside Diana’s mental snap at unexpected moments. Our closeness to Diana equally makes her an unreliable narrator, but Larraín skillfully plays on our trust to craft some unsettling visual discordance. People appear and disappear at will, and dinners turn into nightmares without warning. Kristen’s Diana remarks that to the Royals, the past and present are one and the same – there is no future. Just like the Overlook Hotel, Sandringham seems to prey on the vulnerability of Diana’s mind to play host to a menagerie of horrors personally tailored for 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.

This fragmented performance is underpinned by the magnificent musical dichotomy of Jonny Greenwood. There’s a constant battle between the reserved rigidity of the classical with its strings and piano and the vibrantly chaotic improvisational jazz that invades. It’s a musical translation of the deafeningly silent battle between the Royal Family and Diana that occurred throughout her time with them – when they zigged, she zagged. Jazz is a perfect metaphor for the individuality of Diana, as it plays by no rules; you have no idea where it may go next, nor what instruments may suddenly come in. Jazz resiliently defies conformity by playing its own rules, protecting its own personality just as Diana attempted to from the family’s absolute control over her mind and body. Greenwood’s score, Mathon’s cinematography and Stewart’s performance combine as a powerfully dizzying weapon of anxiety and psychological distress, pushing everything off-kilter and keeping it there.

This is a career-defining performance from Kristen Stewart, one that pushes her towards a Best Actress nomination. From Greenwood’s score to Mathon’s cinematography, encapsulated by Larraín’s masterful direction, this is one of the most fascinating films of the year.


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