Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Spencer: A Review



What a difference a few years make. Since Twilight premiered, I have seen Robert Pattinson go from sparkling vampire to avenging Batman and Kristen Stewart go from lovelorn human to the late Princess of Wales. Spencer, an imagined glimpse into three tumultuous days of the former Lady Diana Spencer, has been highly praised. I see many of my brethren all but guaranteeing Stewart will win Best Actress in a cakewalk.

Now that I have seen Spencer, for my own view that is not an Oscar-winning performance. A bit too hallucinatory for most audiences, Spencer is more fever dream than straightforward biopic. Also, that is not an Oscar-winning performance.

"A Fable from a True Tragedy" as the film text tells us, Spencer covers the three days of Christmas 1991 or 1992 in the House of Windsor. While the rest of the family trudges through the rituals of monarchy, Diana, Princess of Wales (Stewart) endures what appears to be a break from reality.

She seems haunted metaphorically and literally by the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), another woman who married a royal only to have her head cut off. A Boleyn biography is left at her bed, and she finds kinship with her royal predecessor. Spencer's only consolation are her boys, Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddy Sprie). 

Her disconnect from her in-laws might come from her constant tardiness, stubborn refusal to perform even the most mundane of tasks asked and self-enforced isolation save for William and Harry. If she talks to others, it is either Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), Chief Chef Darren (Sean Harris) or her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins). Maggie was sent away, something that so upset the Princess she had to be brought back. As she goes through her bulimia and mental stability, she makes a firm stand against the royal pheasant shooting, forcing the royals to give up the boys to enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken  and her to contemplate her future.

Spencer is the second biopic of "Famous Woman in Time of Crisis" directed by Pablo Larraín after the brilliant Jackie. Unlike Jackie, however, Spencer's screenplay by Steven Knight decided to take a slightly more esoteric manner to its subject by injecting a lot of fantasy. The end result, I figure, was to make Spencer more a meditation on our Princess. The end result made her look genuinely bonkers.

Scenes of her imagining literally eating pearls from her necklace or using wire cutters to tear at her skin do not help the case that Diana, Princess of Wales was sane. Instead, it makes her look dangerous to herself and to others. The fact that Spencer does not have her interact much if at all with the Windsors also creates a false idea that she was more willfully reclusive than neglected royal wife. It almost seems that Diana willfully pushed herself away from people versus being pushed. 

When she literally stood her ground and declared she would not move until her children came with her, I was surprised no one literally took a shot at her given how sometimes crazed she came across.

Spencer so drowns in overt symbolism that for me it veered into parody. The image of the scarecrow, her referring to pheasants as 'beautiful but not very bright", her wandering around an old home and the Diana/Boleyn connection were odd to say the least. I think some in the audience felt this too given that I saw a couple walk out.

That in itself isn't a good sign, but that they opted to leave Spencer at the Alamo Drafthouse says something to their impatience at the grand manner the film took.

Kristen Stewart has wowed fellow reviewers with her performance, but I was not wowed. I didn't find she played a character but more an impersonation. Her soft, breathy manner seemed more appropriate for a weak Marilyn Monroe biopic than a Diana, Princess of Wales one. If Spencer was meant for me to sympathize with the late Princess, it didn't work. She just wandered about the film, forever putting herself through misery. Only at the end when she finally fled Sandringham did she show any sign of life. 

Granted, that may have been the point, but it makes things hard when you get a biopic that does not tell you much if anything about the subject. I don't know if the main takeaway I got from Spencer was that Diana, Princess of Wales seemed downright looney and the Windsors were lucky to get her out, but there it is.

As Stewart has to carry almost all of the film, it makes for hard viewing. She can look like Diana, and maybe sound like her. However, to my mind there was no there there.

In smaller roles, Spall, Harris and Hawkins did better. I would put that to the fact that they behaved like real and sane people, not borderline nutters.

If there is something to complement Spencer on it is Jonny Greenwood's score. It blended jazz and chamber music quite well, echoing the late Princess' fragile hold on reality.

Spencer is one of those films critically adored but audiences won't easily embrace. Unlike the late Princess of Wales herself, I think few will be fond of this Spencer.



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