Spencer (2021)

Pablo Larraín | 1hr 51min

It should be noted before anything else that Spencer is not a biopic. It is a ghost story, set in a limbo that looks a lot like Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Within these cavernous halls, there is a woman who has not yet died, but who has already departed all those worlds she once inhabited – the world of common people, the world of royals, the world of her childhood, each one remaining just barely out of reach or view. She is a spectre who is gazed at in awe by the public and with judgement by her in-laws, yet who continues to float by with an intangible presence, unable to make any sort of meaningful contact with the worlds beyond her immediate prison.

The subject of famously troubled women is not unfamiliar territory for Pablo Larraín, whose 2016 film Jackie followed Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following her husband’s assassination, but there is a narrative and stylistic transcendence to Spencer which reaches far greater heights. Few shadows can be found in the soft, even lighting that permeates each frame, as instead we are left to bask in the eerie mist laid out over the estate’s ethereal landscapes. A sense of poetic realism also emerges in Larraín’s tracking camera, delicately catching Prince Diana’s reflection in a pond as it follows her movements from the other side, and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is especially evoked in a pivotal hunting scene that reveals a barbaric underside to the royal family. In the interiors though it is often The Shining that feels more present in the camerawork, closely tailing Diana down the intimidating corridors of the manor which gradually erode her sense of self.

A career high for both Larraín and Stewart, both choosing to untangle the complexities of Princess Diana by rejecting notions of recorded history, and taking a far more subjective perspective.

But the madness that explodes in Stanley Kubrick’s horror only ever remains lurking beneath the surface here, manifesting as ghostly hallucinations of royal servants and, in a frighteningly psychological turn, Anne Boleyn herself, the second wife of King Henry VIII. What starts as a mere curiosity on Diana’s part gradually escalates into a full-blown identity crisis, at the height of which Kristen Stewart slips between playing the princess and Boleyn as two sides of a coin, both being women destroyed by the royal family they have married into.

Much like Larraín, Stewart is far more concerned in peeling back the layers of this woman’s disintegrating mindset than the historicity of the piece. As such, her performance is quite singular among so many of this ilk. It is one thing to find an actress who can flawlessly impersonate Diana, but another to cast one whose screen talents are so well suited to this morose, whispering vision of the character. Stewart has never been a bad actress, but she has often struggled to find directors who know how to utilise her brooding screen persona so well, and it is in Larraín that she finds someone who understands these strengths on such a level that both effectively create the best work of their careers.

The foggy grounds of the Sandringham Estate becoming a visual limbo for Diana, trapping her between worlds.

Jonny Greenwood also seems to be riding a wave of great success in 2021, having additionally composed the scores for The Power of the Dog and Licorice Pizza. As impressive as his work is there, the dissonant, syncopated jazz that hangs in the background of Spencer might just come up on top of all three. Improvised trumpet melodies clash with strings and tinkling percussion, each one playing to their own rhythms, and the effect is heavily disorientating, as if forcing us to jump from one thought to the next without a chance to gather ourselves.

And all of this serves to underscore that formidable isolation eating away at Diana’s mind, eased only by the comfort of her children and the few staff members who keep her company. In fact, it isn’t until almost an hour into the film that she speaks with another royal who isn’t Princes William or Harry, and even then it is still a frighteningly tense stand-off with her husband, Prince Charles. As they stand on either end of a red billiards table in this confrontation, Larraín plants his camera right in the centre of it, cutting between both sides with shots that tenaciously track forwards as tempers rise, insulating the two bitter foes in their own frustration.

The tense confrontation between Diana and Charles across either side of the billiards table, both framed dead centre from these low angles as the camera slowly tracks forwards.

As sparse as these interactions with fellow royals are, the in-laws themselves are still quite present in Spencer. Larraín makes remarkable use of shallow focus to keep them just slightly beyond our view, letting Diana dominate the frame while they linger as a foreboding presence in the background, and then when they do finally come into our line of sight, they simply deliver silent, icy stares right into the camera. If there was any more dialogue, Spencer might have been a historical melodrama, dealing with the power dynamics of Britain’s monarchy and one woman’s ordeal within it. But in the stretches of time spent watching Diana quietly unravel in her search for a way out of this secluded estate, Spencer instead becomes a tragically surreal portrait of a woman doomed to an early grave, cut off from a world she barely ever got the chance to know.

Larraín’s extreme shallow focus always singling Diana out even in the midst of crowds.

Spencer is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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