Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Princess Diana gets a royal dose of empathy in the exceptional film Spencer


Lingering over a kitchen where cooks hurry to prepare food for the Royal Family is a sign reading "No noise, they can hear you!" It's meant to be a warning to keep all the clattering of pots and pans down as not to disrupt anyone, but it carries larger significance than that. The thought of ears always being up and catching every little thing runs deep throughout Spencer. There's always somebody waiting around the corner or behind a nearby door hearing every word that spills out of Princess Diana's (Kristen Stewart) mouth. It's a suffocating way to live that's captured with brutality but also deft care under the direction of filmmaker Pablo Larrain. 

A self-proclaimed "fable based on true events", Spencer chronicles three days (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day) in the life of Diana Spencer in December 1991. Spencer is grappling with a series of mental health issues, including bulemia and hallucinations, that are giving her a lot of anxiety. Exacerbatng this stress is the actions of the royal family, who make their frustrations towards Spencer apparent by ordering servants to keep a close eye on her. All Spencer wants is some freedom in her life. However, she has to deal with the constant presence of people like Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) firmly insisting she do things like put on certain dresses or close her curtains. The stated reason for all these actions is because of the presence of largely unseen "press" figures snapping photographs. It's clear, though, that the actual reason is to stifle Spencer's personality. 

Spencer's story unfolds with a pervasive sense of claustrophia, as societal expectations keep crushing Spencer no matter where she turns. In one of several smart moves by screenwriter Steven Knight, the people upholding those expectations make no attempt to disguise their motivations. Spencer's husband, Charles, Prince of Wales (Jack Farthing), has a conversation in a pool room with his significant other plainly explaining to her that she has to do things she hates, her needs aren't important. Meanwhile, the lone conversation Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet) has with her daughter-in-law see's this regal figure explaining to Spencer that she and the other members of the Royal Family are nothing more than currency for the general public.

Going down this track makes the plot of Spencer akin to watching someone stuck in quicksand and struggling to escape. In this case, the quicksand Spencer wants to evade is the standards of the Royal Family, where everyone has resigned themselves to living for an abstract vision of perfection. They've all gotten with the program, even the servants, particularly Gregory, adhere to this idea. Why can't Spencer? Though she may have visions of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) walking alongside her down long hallways, Spencer is more thetered to reality than any of the people that are supposed to be her blood relatives. Through her eyes, Spencer reveals the grave cost of putting tradition over the livelihood of human beings. 

This narrative foundation is a compelling way of exploring Princess Diana on film, eschewing a grave-to-craddle biopic structure in favor of something more concise, insightful, and unique. Of course, one would expect something distinct from Spencer director Pablo Larrain. He even manages to make this production unique even compared to his last movie about a notable 20th century female political figure, Jackie. Among the unique traits he brings to the table is taking a cue from fellow excellent 2021 movie The Father and translating the visual language of horror movies as a way to convey mental health issues. Rather than use such elements to be exploitative about Spencer's real issues, Larrain uses them to bring us closer into the mind of this individual and effectively depict how she slips in and out of reality.

The influence of horror cinema is also felt in bits and pieces of Jonny Greenwood's score, which occasionally uses discordant piano keys and piercing string instruments to magnify the anxiety in Spencer's head. Primarily, though, Greenwood's composition capture the internal world of Spencer's protagonist through an ingenious use of jazz music motifs. Jazz is the last genre one would normally associate with a movie about a member of the Royal Family. However, those wailing trumpets, the low-pitch of those double brass strings getting plucked, the crackling of the ride cymbal, they all make for perfect extensions of the emotions Spencer can barely contain. This creative musical manifestation of Princess Diana is one of the most ingenious parts of Spencer.

Also impressing here is, of course, Kristen Stewart, whose turn as the titular lead of Spencer has already garnered headline for months now. Prepare for even more hype over her work in the weeks to come since she does deliver a startlingly good lead turn here. Equal parts fiery and vulnerable, she tackles the most psychologically tormented moments of her character with grace. However, I was especially impressed with how much warmth she lends moments Spencer can just be a person, full of glee over being at the beach, playing a game with her two kids, or seeing an old scarecrow. Perhaps even better than Stewart, though, is Sally Hawkins as Spencer's one confidante in the household. All movies are better with Sally Hawkins, it's a scientific fact, and Spencer is proof why. She can command your attention with a whisper and she immediately conveys years of friendship with Spencer after being onscreen for mere moments.

Emphasizing these moments of levity and human connection in Spencer's life ensures that Spencer doesn't feel like an exploitative movie. If anything, it feels akin to how Once Upon a Time in Hollywood approached Sharon Tate, in how it chronicles everyday life to restore a sense of complexity and humanity to a woman long defined exclusively by her tragic passing. This empathetic approach towards the central subject of Spencer extends all throughout the production, including Claire Mathon's outstanding cinematography. Like the cooks that concot her meals, Princess Diana Spencer is always told to be quiet because everyone, both in the Royal Family and in the world, is listening. Spencer, though, vividly makes a case for why she should be as loud and proud as she wants.

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