Sunday 6 February 2022

Movie Review: Spencer (2021)

A study of loneliness and looming depression, Spencer delves into the mind of the planet's most famous woman trapped in an inhospitable world.

December 1991. The British royals assemble at Sandringham Estate to celebrate Christmas. Her Royal Highness Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) arrives alone, feeling detached from the rest of the family. She now knows her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is having an affair, and she is stifled and repelled by the cold and meticulously orchestrated traditions.

Over three days, Diana battles bulimia and only finds joy in the company of her young boys William and Harry. She interacts with head chef Darren (Sean Harris) and equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), but the only servant she trusts is her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins). As she reads a book about the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, Diana's erratic behaviour intensifies and she becomes ever more desperate to break free. Her late father's next-door estate offers a tantalizingly close emotional escape to happier memories.

Spencer imagines Lady Diana's gradual but necessary royal deconstruction as a process towards discovering a new path. Writer Steven Knight is solely focused on the real woman beneath the public legend, and director Pablo Larrain unceremoniously shreds away all pomp and ceremony: the rest of the royal family members and all their choreographed movements are pushed into the deep background, now just a ridiculous sideshow amplifying Diana's agony.

What remains is a searing journey into a distressed soul, with the cold walls closing in. Lost in her own country (literally, at the start of the movie), betrayed by her husband, close to being labelled an outcast, and sensing nothing but disdain from family members unfamiliar with the concept of affection, Diana seeks refuge with her sons, the servants, and vestiges of the past. 

Staring at a miserable present and a bleak future, and with the ghost of Anne Boleyn providing all the warning she needs, Diana mentally seeks refuge in her roots. Larrain uses the next-door but abandoned and dilapidating Spencer family estate, including her father's jacket-draped scarecrow, as a device of yearning for simpler times when a young girl experienced meaningful love and happiness.

Although Diana's arc does evolve, the pacing is slow, and Spencer occasionally stalls in the same emotional space. Several themes are underlined to pad the running time to two hours: the Princess as a trapped victim, Charles' thoughtless pearl necklace gift as a choke hold, Diana's every move scrutinized and her every dress for every hour of every day pre-selected, and all private conversations within Sandringham immediately transitioning from secret to gossip.

Larrain captures fluid, elegant, and sometime rustic beauty inside and outside the estate, while Jonny Greenwood's jazz-infused score adds a restless, on-edge representation of Diana's mind. And in an eloquent performance, Kristen Stewart defines heartache creeping into torment. She also blossoms in the few moving scenes of poignant happiness with young William and Harry, Diana expressing singular fulfillment in her role as a mother.

Finding elegance in the journey to revelation, Spencer prods the doubt-filled roots of courage.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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