Spencer

****

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Spencer
"There are strong supporting performances from a relatively small cast, but they pale in comparison to Stewart."

It is described as "a fable from a true tragedy", and it does achieve that. A few nights, a few days, a fugue, a feud, a fury. The eponymous Spencer is Diana, our protagonist, but there is much hung from it. There's a coat, not of arms, of a scarecrow, but it is one of a series of flashes of colour in something that holds fast.

Kristen Stewart is triumphant. In a cast that mostly look a bit like the real people they play, not close enough to be uncanny, not far enough away to be absurd, in context and habit she becomes if not Diana then the idea of her. As someone "half jewellery anyway" she exists in a place of imagination. Fey doesn't begin to cover it. Not just a cock of head or set of stare, a glamour.

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Pablo Larrain is no stranger to political widows, to strange places, to difficult families. Jackie, The Club, Ema all occupy similar territory, though none as palatial, as haunted. Steven Knight has penned other films that rely on single performances in liminal spaces, Locke perhaps a key to understanding how relentless Spencer is in its focus. Hardy there, Stewart here, and all the more powerful each for it. Eastern Promises was also his, and while much of its menace came from Cronenberg a world of codes and honour and conspiracy is not as different as one might hope. London may now offer legitimacy to Russian organised crime but Imperial history is little more than the wash of one bloodied hand by another.

There is the Queen, of course, but she is the Head of State, the State is something else. It is boxes of machine gun ammunition repurposed, links of one kind replaced by links of another. It is the Queen Mother's valet brought down to ensure order, telling stories of his time on the streets of Northern Ireland. Someone must polish the iron fist within the velvet glove, someone must take the lint from that cover, measure it for the table.

Here those are various. Timothy Spall, august and jowl and polished boots. Sean Harris again sets a table for royalty, though as Darren, head chef, his role is stark contrast to the head chief in The Green Knight. Sally Hawkins as Maggie, one of the dressers, in yet another role that highlights just how capable she is as an actress. Jack Nielen and Freddy Spry (William and Harry) are sufficiently new that the only visual credit I can find between them is a child judge on Lego Masters. Jack Farthing as their father adds to roles in things like Poldark and The Riot Club as an establishment voice, but given that he studied at Westminster and Oxford he has an advantage through privilege of being of that ilk. Between them all though is Stewart, and her performance is an absolute triumph.

This is something jazzy, free-wheeling, even in the corridor constraints of the winter palace. The action occupies space between upstairs and downstairs and ruins and royalty, obligation and seasonality, mist and mistletoe, tension and tinsel - this is a place where very door has more than one threshold, curtains can be both shut and closed. Cinematography by Claire Mathon (Portrait Of A Lady On Fire) covers the oneiric and the ordinary, pristine porcelain and parabolic pearls. There is mention in the BBFC 12A of eating disorder references and they are various - seen, said, suggested. Self-harm too, and while the events depicted include 'support' they are and were less useful than those linked at the bottom of this review.

This Diana struggles too, but Stewart's performance is, to extend the metaphor, sufficiently fey that it recoils from that cold steel, the iron discipline of the crown. There are flashes, insights, and more. There is a sense of repetition but tradition is a thing to be built upon. Jonny Greenwood's career as a composer now hits the point where one wonders if 'Radiohead' will become an answer to a trivia question like 'Oingo Boingo'. When you look at the works that he has composed for there is a thread, phantasmal or otherwise, of quality. Again, here.

Stewart's performances have sometimes been criticised, but as with many her lack of affect is not without effect. This is much more in the vein of, say, Personal Shopper, than some of her less lit nonsenses. I was minded of Doctor Sleep in the sense of legacies upheld, but also in quality. This is steeped in it, to the point that I noticed two different number plates on what appeared the same car. That one of them (J548LRP) was the plate on Diana's actual red Mercedes convertible and not the dark green Porsche on which it appears is a sign of attention. Not just mine either.

This is likely to win awards. Not just because its format of stately home and emotional states is prime film fodder but because it is good. There are strong supporting performances from a relatively small cast, but they pale in comparison to Stewart. She has played royalty and their analogues often enough, but here she's not just again the fairest of them all but a princess of, if not hearts, then rose-tinted glasses.

The cast look similar, but are not lookalikes. There's probably an essay in the anachronistic potentials of background details of a visit to a particular restaurant, but they were changing their name in 1991 too and there are bigger chickens to fry. There are processes that have been changed, but students of palace ephemera and the traditions of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha will see much that they recognise. What is most easily seen is quality, and Spencer has it aplenty.

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Reviewed on: 05 Nov 2021
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The marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles has long since grown cold. Though rumours of affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Christmas festivities, across which handful of days, the film is set.


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