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Friday, November 12, 2021

Spencer


Pablo Larraín's Spencer has already received a lot of buzz around Kristen Stewart's portrayal of Princess Diana, and rightfully so.  Even if she does not closely resemble the person she is portraying, she has the mannerisms and essence of Diana, creating a completely believable portrayal that is captivating and engaging.  But what interested me more is how Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight has decided to tell her story.

The film is essentially the story of Diana and her struggles, which came in all forms, both physical and mentally.  During the course of the film, she struggles with her loveless marriage, a family that is largely uninterested in her, her own personal nightmares and demons, and with her eating disorder.  She is trapped emotionally, and in a lovely but cold home that offers little to no comfort.  Part of this is due to Diana's background, and how she was catapulted from obscurity to becoming one of the most photographed people in the world.  Part is also due to her past, which seems to haunt her a lot.  There are moments in the film that seem to suggest a thriller, as this lone woman is constantly on the run from invisible past visions, and witnesses horrific nightmares.  

That is the strength and the unique angle that the film captures, which I was not expecting.  Rather than try to chart the life and marriage of Diana (like the recent disastrous Broadway musical, Diana, which was filmed for Netflix), the movie instead focuses on a few days in her life over the Christmas holiday of 1991, and shows us what she was fighting both personally and inside her head at the time.  As is tradition, the Royal Family has retreated to Sandringham Estate for the holidays.  It is a sprawling 20,000 acres home, with an army of staff to look after Diana's every need.  And yet, many times, the Princess finds herself walking the cavernous halls by herself, giving the audience a sense of isolation, which allows Diana to indulge in nightmarish fantasies that frequently haunt her.

Diana has a desire to return or perhaps retreat to her childhood home, which has been boarded up and is nearby the grounds, and so she frequently makes escapes late in the night under cover of darkness.  All throughout her time at the Estate, she is haunted by her own past ghosts, as well as visions.  She does her best to hold onto what little joy she gets, such as the time she spends with her two sons.  But, the power of the film comes not just from Stewart's performance, but how the film frequently places us into her tortured mind.  She is surrounded by family, but they hardly speak to her, nor do they speak to each other much.  There are certain members of the staff that she speaks too, such as the sweet Maggie (a wonderful Sally Hawkins) or Gregory (Timothy Spall), but even they seem to be under strict orders not to let Diana be seen by any photographers that might be lurking nearby.

Spencer is a deep dive into a fragile and troubled mind, and while it is told to us up front that what we are about to witness is a fable based on a real tragedy, we get the sense that what we are watching is not far removed from what actually happened.  There is little comfort or moments of levity held within the film, and so we get to share in Diana's emotional descent as she is locked away in bedrooms, outside of the public eye, and indulges in her personal fantasies, which sometime include self-harm.  We get the sense that her surroundings are trying to drain what life remains within the woman, and whether or not it will succeed becomes the question.  We know how her story must ultimately end, but that's not what the film is about.  In this small part of her life, she is trying to hold onto her sanity, her identity, and herself before she is completely lost in despair.


I expected a well-made biofilm from Spencer, and got something much different, and if I must admit, much more thrilling.  The movie creates a surprisingly surreal and chilling atmosphere out of the life of a very well-publicized figure.  As much praise as Stewart is getting, I think the film itself is worth praising, as it goes in a direction that few in Hollywood would probably take it.

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