There’s a shot at the very beginning of Pablo Larraín’s Spencer that showcases a dead pheasant, nearly being run over by a series of brooding military wagons. The lifeless bird, tranquil and adorned with a cloak of eclectic feathers is nearly battered with each passing vehicle, in a hypnotising static shot that runs for nearly thirty seconds. Perhaps this brief image is the most impactful summation of Spencer. Princess Diana, the poor lifeless bird — forever trapped within the grounds of the royal family territory. Dinners are but an inferno for the eager plea of divorce. A scarecrow is a haunting reminder of the intergenerational trauma of the cursed family. The film is a fable; retold through the lens of demented surrealism and anxiety-inducing dread.
Larraín’s direction takes a surprisingly anti-establishment storytelling approach with its narrative structure and plot beats. Far from falling under the same conventional trappings of other royal family dramas, Larraín’s cringe-inducing portrait of British snobbery, bullying, and the stagnant loyalty towards the monarchy, presents its narrative with varying degrees of ambiguity and satire. A co-production with Germany that is also backed by the delicate hands of Toni Erdmann’s Maren Ade, Steven Knight’s heavily critical-script is able to take great creative licenses and bold statements against the throne through various scenes of playful surrealism. Even with its unconventional structure, Spencer continuously batters its viewer with evocative imagery. It’s a ghost story; a holiday-season nightmare that spirals and mesmerises with Kristen Stewart’s hunched mannerisms and dedication to Diana’s posh dialect. We feel her struggle through Stewart’s vulnerability; a film that feels personal and urgent with each of her heavy-hearted breaths.
Occasionally, the hamfisted allegories and motifs that directly link Diana’s anguish with her royal past can often border on insufferability. From a book that reads ‘the life and death of a martyr’ to painterly portraits of other infamous monarchs, the parallels between fiction and reality repeat themselves like a broken record. The first and second acts respectively meander in wallowed melodrama. It’s blunt, literal, and oh so very British until the film’s extraordinary ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ finale. From a conga line of corgis to Diana’s self-loathing identity crisis, Larraín still manages to find footing in some of Knight’s lesser moments of dialogue-heavy repetition.
So, proves the importance of a talented director. Spencer’s most evocative and punctuated moments are the select few scenes that evoke tension through the power of stares & posture. Cinematic mind games over decorated dinner tables that penetrate the viewer in an insatiable battle between Diana’s freewill and the family’s own personal self-interested gain. In many regards, Larraín is the king of contemporary revisionist fiction and Spencer yet again proves his talents as a filmmaker, an artist, and an audacious provocateur worthy of applause and merit; even in the face of middling melodrama.
Spencer screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Events program.