Film Review: Spencer
Directed by Pablo Larraín. Germany/UK, 2021, 117 minutes.
Available on VOD.
There’s a moment early in Spencer that almost sold me on the film’s approach to the Lady Di story. When Diana first arrives at Sandringham House, where the royal family traditionally celebrates Christmas, Kristen Stewart’s nervy, intensely mannered, and typically bold performance collides with the frigid atmosphere of the estate (as represented by the great Timothy Spall’s austere portrayal of the head of the house staff), like the paradox of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Add in Pablo Larraín’s claustrophobic camerawork, and the result is a grotesque amalgamation of alien aesthetics—a portrait of the English monarchy as a bizarre, freakish institution. It’s a stark contrast to the way shows like The Crown (2016-) or films like The King’s Speech (2010) attempt to make royalty seem relatably human.
Unfortunately Larraín is unable to sustain this level of inspiration, bogged down by a script that ultimately falls prey to the same clichés. Diana’s character arc in Spencer, as she comes to terms with her desire to leave Prince Charles and free herself of the expectations that come with being a royal, rests on an insistence of this woman’s humanity. But Kristen Stewart’s interpretation of the role tells us something very different: She makes Diana decidedly inhuman, a testament to the fact that anything or anyone touched by the royal family becomes something uncanny and unrecognizable—and expressing that by association with the Tudors, you become a person not like other people. Thus when Diana has her climactic moment of self-actualization, it feels disingenuous, because at no point has Larraín’s style or Stewart’s performance suggested that this suffocating, dehumanizing, and ugly world is one that might allow for transcendence.
In both Spencer and Larraín’s previous historical character study, Jackie (2016), form and content are more than incompatible—for “incompatible” would suggest a reasonable attempt to make the two match. Instead, Larraín seems to develop his style, and direct his lead actresses, with a complete disregard for the material. For those who have reclaimed the films as exercises in camp—like Rachel Glese for Xtra Magazine, who wrote that “[Spencer] descends… into pure gothic camp… a very queer movie about the heterosexual fairy-tale myth of happily ever after”—I think this is the appeal: The camp aesthetic once again located in works that are not self-consciously designed or marketed as camp. Spencer is supposed to be a respectable prestige drama, an Oscar movie in genre terms, but instead the film acts as a display for a truly garish depiction of the Princess of Wales by a former teen idol turned arthouse It Girl.
If only Larraín had the talent or the wherewithal to know what to do with that depiction, some artistic plan of action beyond unleashing his aesthetic on a film ill-prepared to support it. Two directors come to mind as examples of artists who could’ve pulled off what Larraín is attempting to do here: Joseph Losey (Time Without Pity, 1957) and Alan Clarke (Scum, 1979). Both filmmakers often allowed their actors to go big, and both developed styles that could estrange audiences, but they rarely if ever lost sight of why they were applying those techniques to what otherwise might be fairly straightforward material. They simultaneously destabilized traditional narrative form and fully explored what their material might yield by presenting it in such an extreme manner. Larraín, on the other hand, forges ahead with bold filmmaking choices without much of a thought as to why he’s doing it, and fails to subvert his material in any meaningful way. If he’s waging a battle against the biopic or the Hollywood prestige film then he’s losing. [★★]