A few opinions on the movie and why to watch it.
“The marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles has long since grown cold. Though rumors of affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Christmas festivities at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. There’s eating and drinking, shooting and hunting. Diana knows the game. But this year, things will be profoundly different. SPENCER is an imagining of what might have happened during those few fateful days.
Spencer is the long-awaited Princess Diana prestige biopic in which Kristen Stewart plays the sadly late, forever beloved former British royal. With this film, director Pablo Larrain established himself as an ambitious filmmaker willing to dramatize nigh-impossible stories – see also, 2016’s Jackie, in which he cast Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, transforming her experience of the days after JFK’s assassination into unconventional biography, and a highfalutin art film. Spencer is of a similar formula, albeit labeled as “a fable from a true tragedy” (and therefore technically a BOATS movie (Based On A True Story); now let’s see if Larrain renders it more functional this time around.
The Gist: Christmas Eve. Norfolk, England. A military exercise. British army trucks arrive at Sandringham Estate. Soldiers march rigidly into the mansion with what appear to be large trunks of ammunition. But inside there are no mortar rounds or hand grenades or landmines. No, they contain all the Royal Family’s food for its Christmas celebrations: exotic fruits, lobsters on ice, probably some peas to be mushed into soup, etc. So much for the Queen Mum braving the long holiday lines at Costco.
Meanwhile, Diana is alone. Driving her Porsche along country roads. Royally lost. She pulls into a fish-and-chips cafe and walks in to ask for directions and the place stands still, starstruck. Uneasy jazz plays on the soundtrack. She should know these roads – she grew up right there, where she pulls over and spots a scarecrow on her birth family’s former land. It’s wearing her father’s jacket. The manor she lived in is now boarded up, on a large parcel neighboring Sandringham’s even larger parcel, a razor-wire fence on the boarder. Darren (Sean Harris), the Royal chef, happens upon her, directs her back to the Royal estate, but not before she retrieves the weathered, surely guano-spattered jacket. It is not very Royal, not at all.
Diana’s going to be late for Christmas Eve dinner, but she gives not a single eff, and hasn’t for a while now. Her discontentedness hasn’t gone over well within this overdecorated prison, where strict formalism and unbending schedules dictate life, where nothing is ever spoken in confidence because the Royal eyes and ears are everywhere. The Queen hired Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), a man with a military background and a perpetually disapproving hang-dog hound-dog pucker for a face, to manage things, but especially to manage Diana, who feels like a pheasant, maybe like one of the pheasants on the estate that are bred to be shot by the Royal men, including her two young sons Harry (Freddie Spry) and William (Jack Nielen), or maybe just the roadkill pheasant that sat in the foreground of the shot while the military trucks rolled in.
The voices in Sandringham are whispering. “Diana has cracked up,” they say. What we see shows nothing to the contrary: Eccentric behavior, bulimia, an obsession with Anne Boleyn – who was beheaded for allegedly cheating on Henry VIII – that results in her seeing the ghost of Anne Boleyn, an odd ramble about how dust is dead skin and since she’s in Queen Victoria’s former room then the place is just filthy with Queen Victoria’s dead skin. Diana appears to be the target of psychological terrorism, surely orchestrated by the censorious Queen (Stella Gonet), and maybe also by discontented hubs Charles (Jack Farthing). Is he philandering? Is she philandering? Probably, probably. The Royals are freezing Diana out, evident by how they won’t turn the heat up in her and the boys’ rooms; perhaps they think it’ll make their blood more purely blue. Her only confidant is one of the staff, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who’s sent away precisely because she’s Diana’s only confidant. Everyone else is Your Royal Majesty this and curtsy that. She finds a moment to chat with the boys and they too are weary of all this, even though they don’t understand the dynamic; they just want to open their presents on Christmas morning instead of Christmas Eve, but they can’t, for they must bow to the unwavering crush of Royal f—ing tradition.
Twenty minutes into the film, that damnable f—ing jazz finally f—ing stops.
Dinner finally happens, and with it comes a string section. Violins. So many violins. Diana’s clothes were chosen for her, and she will wear the pearl necklace Charles gifted her, the exact same pearl necklace he also gifted his mother. (Say it with me: ICK.) The family adjourns to the dining room where everything is where and how it should be and everyone is quiet and reserved and exercising impeccable posture as the staff serves bowls of pastel green soup. Oh no, I can hear you thinking, Are we about to experience a scene of miserable soup-supping? Yes. The MOST miserable. It’s shot like arthouse horror. Diana sees Anne Boleyn at the dinner table. Diana claws at her necklace, breaks it. The PEARLS fall INTO the SOUP and she EATS one. Swallows it right down. Then dashes to the bathroom to vomit it up as the violins intensify. Does Kafka live here too? Dunno, but Diana quite clearly doesn’t want to live here anymore.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Pair Spencer with Jackie if you can suffer both for a double feature; just don’t link it with Diana, the 2013 Naomi Watts-led dud that was so poorly received from the get-go, it barely registered on anyone’s radar.
Performance Worth Watching: OK, Let’s Talk About Kristen Stewart’s Performance. It’s almost campy, elevated to match the borderline-surreal nature of the film, her voice a breathy affectation frequently calling attention to itself. But she also manages to render Diana’s emotions palpable – the anxiety, fear and despair, the feeling that she’s losing her sanity. I sometimes felt like I was watching a trapeze act strung between two skyscrapers.
Memorable Dialogue: Diana explains the nature of Royal existence to her children: “Here, there is only one tense. There is no future. The past and the present are the same thing.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: You’ll love Spencer at times and loathe it at others. In that sense, it’s very much of a piece with Jackie, also about a woman who feels trapped in a gilded cage, about to be crushed by discontent within her sphere – as well as the great admiration and scrutiny from without. In Jackie, Portman often seemed to be fighting through Larrain’s stylized direction in an attempt to share her character’s broken heart; Spencer finds filmmaker and star more in sync, Stewart embracing Larrain’s eccentricities, his attempts to subvert biopic conventions into something resembling artfulness. It’s a wild balancing act, how Stewart and Larrain render the film so profound and annoying, overplayed and indulgent, entertaining and pretentious, and still find room for earnest insight, e.g., an incredible late third-act moment between Stewart and the venerable Hawkins, which arrives like a Boxing Day miracle.
It often seems as if Larrain is being intentionally aggravating, specifically in his use of sledge-to-anvil symbolism: the pearls, the pheasants, the scarecrow, Anne Boleyn. Same for the incessant and intrusive score, which makes one want to put the musical director in timeout, to quietly sit and think about what they’ve done. The screenplay, by Steven Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises, TV’s Peaky Blinders), throws around the word “currency” as if intending to inspire a drinking game, but more likely to invoke the transactional nature of life as a Royal, where you trade your privacy and soul for status and opulence. The film depicts the relentless ceremony of life in the palace as utterly meaningless, wrought from suffocating insularity and sanctimonious entitlement and privilege. It’s most entertaining as a violent skewering of the Royal lifestyle, satisfying our schadenfreude while also stirring concern for Diana, the most beloved Royal of all time. In other words, we all hope the Queen sees this movie, and that it righteously pisses her off.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Spencer is something else – not a biopic, not a well-mannered drama, not a conventional film at all. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it affair. I’ll take it, for being a merciless takedown of haughty Brit aristocracy, which is a lowbrow reason, but still a good reason, to like a movie.”
- Rating:R (Some Language)
- Genre:Biography, Drama
- Original Language:English
- Director:Pablo Larraín
- Producer:Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Paul Webster
- Writer:Steven Knight
- Release Date (Theaters):Nov 5, 2021 Wide
- Release Date (Streaming):Nov 23, 2021