Sunday, January 23, 2022

Spencer

♣♣♣♣/♣♣♣♣♣

1991. Diana (Kristen Stewart), Princess of Wales, decides to drive to the annual Christmas holiday celebration of the royal family at Sandringham and gets lost along the way. Now aware of the affair her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has been having, she finds herself on the verge of a breakdown. The only people she can have a genuine conversation with not bound by rehearsed royal protocol responses are her sons Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Prince Harry (Freddie Spry) as well as her royal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), who tries to convince her to weather the situation with her beauty and grace under pressure. This, she finds difficult to do given the restrictive ambiance of the place and the traditions that are observed there. It doesn’t help that her every move is being policed by Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall). Finding inspiration in the life story of Anne Boleyn, she finds clarity in the neighboring estate where she grew up and is about to make one of her life’s biggest decisions.

The film is not a full-on biopic per se. Instead, Larraín tackles the character the same way he did Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, by focusing on one specific event in the titular character’s life and creating an entire storyline out of it. In the case of Spencer, that specific moment is the annual three-day royal holiday celebration at Sandringham where the Queen records her Christmas greetings to the nation, and where Diana decides that she no longer wants to be part of the royal family, eventually leading to her divorce.

The thing about storylines like this is that nobody really knows what happens and are said behind the walls of that huge royal estate. This is where creative license comes in and makes the viewing experience rather confusing once the lines between fact and fiction start to blur. Since the characters being portrayed here are real people, most of whom are still alive, you can’t help but succumb to the temptation to treat the material as a documentary. In the end, how do you determine what really happened and what is just the imagination of the writers and the director?

As for Diana herself, it seems that there is no end to this global fascination about the short life she had lived. Along with her ex-mother-in-law, they are everywhere in pop culture, from TV to theater to film. I have not seen The Crown, so my only point of comparison is the Broadway musical I’ve seen recently. While the core storyline remains the same, the portrayals tend to vary. Wildly. Diana: The Musical’s Diana is perky, tongue-in-cheek, and irreverent. Spencer’s Diana is unhinged, sarcastic, and unapologetic.

In this regard, Stewart delivers a career-defining performance. Brave, we must say, for agreeing to tackle a historical figure that has already been portrayed so many times with varying degrees of success by different actresses before her. Her rendition is that of a princess on the verge of a breakdown, and Larraín’s intimate close-ups coupled with shrill violin accompaniments in the background just highlight the pent-up emotions brewing inside, waiting to be released but just couldn’t.

For anyone whose only exposure to Stewart’s body of work is that of her monotonous performance as a vampire lover in Twilight, Spencer comes across as a pleasant surprise proving her detractors wrong, because the girl can act all along. Perhaps she was just waiting for the right material that would bring her back to the center of the conversation. Lest we forget, didn’t she win a supporting César for Clouds of Sils Maria almost a decade ago? That went almost unnoticed, though. Or maybe she just has a lot of irrational haters?

In the end, what this partnership between Larraín and Stewart achieves is an intimate portrait of a woman at one of if not the lowest point of her life. Stewart does not really resemble the late Lady Diana in any way, except maybe for that one scene at the old house where she was crying in the dark, but that’s beside the point. Spencer is a showcase of marital turmoil through the eyes of a woman who decides that enough is enough. You don’t have to be the Princess of Wales to relate to that.

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