Spencer ★★★★½

You can read a version of this review in Outtake Mag.

Spencer is an audacious piece of art, provocative and scathing in its depiction of royalty. This is not a film about anyone real. It is a complete fiction, about events that did not happen and a fantasy that is absurd. However it is very real in its imaginings of the sort of tragedy that Diana Spencer found herself in. It speculates about history, and finds a unique angle with which to view it. Art should be this bold and daring and probing. Spencer is a work of genius, that finds something new to say about a story that has been told so many times before.

Director Pablo Larraín has now completed a thematic trilogy of biopics, with Spencer following on from the fun and thrilling Neruda as well as the sublime and difficult Jackie. None of these biopics are conventional, and Spencer also strays away from what may be expected from a film about royalty. This work will not please royalists or those with any fondness for the British Royal Family. It presents them from an outside view, that of a Chilean director and American actress. There is no love given to the Royal Family, only scorn at their hypocrisy and stubbornly stupid traditions.

Larraín's other films often have a fascination with Pinochet, dictator of Chile in the 1970s and 1980s. Pinochet lost power in 1990, but during his reign the United Kingdom was a loyal supporter of his. Setting Spencer during Christmas some time in the early 1990s, Larraín seems to use the film to mock Britain, depicting it as a country stuck in its own past and committed to its own form of conservatism. Within the film, the Queen's Christmas Message makes reference to those recently freed from dictatorship, a no doubt pointed jab at the hypocrisy of Britain and its support for Pinochet. However Spencer digs deeper, specifically showing the Royal Family as its own little authoritarian world, one of rules and expectations and limited freedom. The Queen presides over a mini dictatorship within her family. Early on in Spencer we see how even food preparation is done in a military fashion, with orders shouted and soldiers obeying. It's our own little form of militarism, a culture of oppression and discipline, not one of freedom nor sense. Timothy Spall plays a Major in charge of running the Christmas festivities, and his character seemingly rules over Diana because the house staff function as his network of spies, yet another fascist parallel. In a telling scene, he talks of how soldiers die for the crown. To both Diana and any outsider, this seems like such a stupid thing, and the film plays it as such. Spencer shows the Royal Family as a manifestation of rotting conservatism and decaying extravagance, being backwards-looking and ruthless. It's a brave depiction, and something rare to see.

Larraín put Pablo Neruda in a detective movie, and he positioned Jackie Kennedy as someone caught in a hazy myth. Keeping up his genre biopic approach, Spencer is a horror movie. It has such an oppressive atmosphere, with shots that entrap us with Diana and make for a strangling, claustrophobic experience. The score, by Jonny Greenwood, is haunting and mournful. With gothic locations, disturbing hallucinations, and moments of self-harm, this version of Diana is stuck in a nightmare. At times Spencer gets a little too silly, especially when Anne Boleyn turns up, and the final third almost falls in on itself when it goes down a more overt horror route. However it works because there's a balance achieved that allows for a more joyous ending. The horrors are confined to the past, not the future. Spencer is a film of mental dilapidation, of Diana falling apart and struggling to reconcile herself with her image. The evil of the small social tyranny depicted in Spencer is that everything becomes meaningless, and love means nothing to those committed to such tyranny. Ultimately Spencer is about finding some form of freedom, because that's the only way to feel love.

Spencer is such a dark film. It is openly disrespectful to reality, but this allows it to examine Diana from a new perspective, one that is metaphorical rather than literal. It is set in an unnamed year, with imagined characters, placing Spencer in a unique universe with which to reimagine Diana. Kristen Stewart sells every moment, embodying Diana entirely, in spite of the film's style-driven approach and deviations from fact. Spencer bathes in the absurd, both due to its indulgent artistic flourishes and the inherent farcicality of royal life. Spencer is an art film that deconstructs a person and her surroundings and her legacy, much like Jackie did. However Larraín's obsessive merge of fantasy and fiction is even more heightened here.

Spencer is too aggressively anti-establishment to please everybody, but its refusal to conform to the norms of cinema, genre, and cultural tradition will ensure it finds love amongst those willing to seek out something different and challenging. Kristen Stewart is superb at the centre of it all, and Pablo Larraín's vision is truly special. Spencer is a triumph of artistic expression, and a brilliantly realised, profound, real-life fantasy.

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