Spencer (Extended Take)

This review expands on my previous quick take. Spoilers abound.

Spencer begins intriguingly, almost playfully.  A caravan of military vehicles arrives at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk.  A collection of soldiers emerge, who proceed to carry a set of large, drab metal cases into the kitchen.  Only when the chef opens them are we certain of their contents: iced lobster, organic fruits and vegetables, and so forth.  The framing of the soldiers is done in such a dry, ironic manner that Stanley Kubrick certainly would have given it an appreciative nod.

Larraín juxtaposes the “military groceries operation” with Diana (Kristen Stewart) driving herself to the same estate.  She’s lost, which is also ironic since her destination is on the same estate as her childhood home.  She is forced to pull over at the local pub, and ask for directions from the gobsmacked patrons.  By cross-cutting these two scenes, Larraín cleverly establishes the conflict of Spencer and its protagonist: the clash between Diana’s fun-loving free spirit and the stately rigidity of the royal family and everything that surrounds them.  

The soldiers symbolize life as a member of the royal family: do your duty willingly and respectfully, and never make a fuss about your lot in life.  Diana, as Spencer posits, was lost literally and figuratively, a metaphor revisited throughout the movie.  Her fairy-tale wedding having long faded from view, Diana was unwilling to accept the failed state of her marriage with a stiff upper lip and simply “get on” with the job of being a Royal.  While cooly rebuffed by her husband and his family, she faced intense media coverage that dissected her every move and word.  Her life had turned into a strange dichotomy: she was unloved by her own family, but fanatically adored by complete strangers throughout the world.

Larraín and writer Steven Knight imagine that in December of 1991, the time frame for Spencer, spending yet another joyless three-day holiday with the Windsors was a turning point in Diana’s life.  The event not only pushed Diana to the edge of sanity, but served as the catalyst of her decision to end her marriage to Prince Charles.

The initially wry and clinical tone of Spencer gives way to many other tonal shifts through the course of the movie.  Once Diana sets foot inside Sandringham estate, the movie adopts the posture of a mansion-set horror film from the Sixties.  In those films, the young hero spends the length of the movie realizing that the family they’ve married into worships Satan.  The difference in Spencer being that Diana already knows that her family is “evil”, and has no choice but to submit to their rituals in order to be released from their clutches.

Everything that happens over the three-day holiday further deteriorates Diana’s frayed mental state.   The initial weigh-in, a fun ritual initiated by King Edward VII, as well as the frequent and scheduled dining times, both exacerbate Diana’s bulimia.  The cool, withering stares from Charles (Jack Farthing) and the Queen (Stella Gonet) trigger her anxiety and depression.  Unlike the popular quote, Diana’s hell isn’t fresh, it’s predictable, mandatory and unavoidable.

When in distress, Diana imagines hurting herself.  One scene late in the movie was so painful to watch I found myself squirming in my seat and my eyes avoiding the screen.  While many see Spencer as a companion piece to Larraín’s Jackie, I found it more akin to Roman Polanski’s classic Repulsion (1965) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), with Diana in the role of the woman who’s quickly losing her grasp on reality.

In an attempt to approximate Diana’s fragile mental state, the score alternates between tense, foreboding jazz and creepy chamber music.  (I named them the “I’m Losing My Mind Combo” and the “Am I Going Crazy Quartet”.)  Whenever Diana was having a particularly rough time handling her situation, the jazz and the chamber music would play at the same time.  The jazz-influenced elements of the score brought back echoes of Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and also Showtime’s Homeland (2011-20).  The latter would always queue up Miles Davis whenever Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder was taking over her mental state.  The score   didn’t bother me that much, but I could see where some viewers could find it a major irritant.  (If there ever was a movie where the digital release should include an option to disable the score off, this is the one.)

Spencer also includes the elements of a ghost story.  Diana curiously finds a copy of a biography on Anne Boleyn in her room, layed out to get her attention. As she reads it, she finds Anne Boleyn to be a kindred spirit in more ways than one.  Like Anne Boleyn, Diana sees herself as another woman sacrificed at the expense of the monarchy.  Soon enough, she not only starts seeing Boleyn, but talks to her as well.  As a movie, Spencer is built on overt symbolism, but this element felt heavy handed and should have been excised.

In the last act, Diana breaks into her childhood home and is able to reconnect with her past.  Larraín depicts Diana viewing herself dancing as a young girl, then cuts to scenes of her  running and dancing, from a young girl to an adult.  The sequence is one of the few instances in the movie where Larraín’s expressive style and symbolic flourishes worked in service of the material instead of overpowering it.  Diana clearly was a free spirit who was a bad match for the reserved and repressed life of a member of the royal family.

Spencer also introduces a “coming out” aspect in the last act.  (I admit to having initially missed it, but I’ve since since forgiven myself for not catching onto one of the movie’s countless themes.)  Throughout the movie, Diana’s one friend and confidant has been Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her dresser.  When the two are far away from the estate at the beach, Maggie confides to Diana that she’s in love with her.  The scene is a touching moment of sensitivity that felt completely out of left field, given all of the pain and anguish Diana had previously endured while on holiday.  Fortunately, Film Twitter clued me in on how the plot of Spencer can also be interpreted as Diana “coming out”.

Some will argue that this topic is not appropriate for a movie loosely based on the life of Diana.  Spencer, however, has defined itself at the outset as a fable, and nothing in a fable is out of bounds.  The revelation definitely parallels the life of the actress playing her, who famously came out years ago.  That the movie also seeks to work on a meta level shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how many influences Larraín and Knight have explored to that point.

Astonishingly, the movie chooses to frame the moment when Diana decides to take her children and end her relationship with Charles and his family, a moment of self-actualization and triumph, with a huge slice of Eighties cheese, the song “All I need is a Miracle” by Mike + The Mechanics.  Not only is it the worst song the band ever released, it was predestined to haunt us in elevators, grocery stores and dentist chairs forever.

Stewart’s performance is an incredible technical achievement, bringing forth Diana’s spirit through an uncanny approximation of her vocal and physical mannerisms.  Like Diana, Stewart has a natural, classic beauty that is as radiant as it is transcendent, and helps us accept her as the woman she personifies.  Kristen Stewart undeniably poured every ounce of acting skill she has into her characterization of Diana.  Unfortunately, to paraphrase George Harrison, Stewart’s performance is all too much.  To borrow a painting metaphor, Stewart’s Diana is all big strokes on a big canvas, and she crosses the line into scenery chewing many times.

I should confess that I’m a fan of The Crown.  Emma Corrin’s award-winning take on Diana is everything Stewart’s is not.  Corrin drew us in with her restrained yet intricate performance, building an emotional connection with the audience through smaller displays of emotion than anything displayed by Stewart in Spencer.  This surprised me because Stewart is more than capable of delivering a moving performance based on nuance and subtlety, and has done so many times in her career.  I can only guess that Larraín encouraged Stewart’s overheated performance which, when coupled with Larraín’s overall approach to the material, made the movie overbearing at times.

One other aspect of Stewart’s portrayal bothered me: she’s too short for the part.  At 5’ 5”, she is five inches shorter than Diana.  Whenever Diana was shown on television, she usually towered over most of the people around her.  Stewart’s Diana simply looks too small and childlike for the part.

Stewart’s performance sharply contrasts with the rest of the cast, who appear much more comfortable with a less-is-more approach.  To continue my painting metaphor, Stewart works on a mural, while everyone else is working in portraiture.

Jack Farthing renders Charles as cold but not entirely unsympathetic to the woman he’s chosen to be estranged from.  His advice to Diana on how, as a member of the royal family, she must do things that her body hates doing, stands in stark contrast to Stewart’s live-wire response.

Timothy Spall has several exceptional monologues as Major Alistar Gregory, hired by Prince Philip to both keep an eye on Diana and an eye out for intrusive photographers.  first cautioning Diana to be aware of the extent the media wants to photograph her, then explaining how he accepts the flaws of the royal family because he made a commitment to the crown.  If there was the ability to give Spall an award for Best Scowl, he would win hands down.

Sean Harris is very good as Royal Chef Darren.  He runs his kitchen like a military general, urging his staff to do their work as quietly as possible, because “they can hear us”.  Harris has two scenes with Diana that are islands of simple, honest emotion in the movie: one in the beginning when he finds Diana lost on the way to the estate, and another later on in the kitchen.  Those scenes, while excellent, show what the movie could have been, and not what it is in total.

Sally Hawkins does her best as Maggie, Diana’s preferred dresser and confidant.  The movie sandbags her with a truly awful haircut which, when combined with a large set of glasses, turns her into a human personification of Edna Mode (see: The Incredibles).  Hawkins perseveres, though, and the scene where she admits her love for Diana is probably the best in the movie, built on honest emotions instead of the overwhelming visual turbulence that preceded it.

The craft behind the movie is undeniable.  The costumes are exquisite.  The cinematography is exceptional, capturing the elegance and grandeur of the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, the surrounding grounds, the meals.  I highly expect the movie to win several Academy Awards in the technical categories.

While I admired several aspects of Spencer, it ultimately didn’t work for me.  I can understand why folks will fall for its audacious, all-in approach.  However, a majority of its nearly two hour run time is dedicated to directorial flourishes and scenery chewing, both of which overwhelm the emotional impact the movie attempts to make.

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