Spencer (2021) Review!!

Synopsis – During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England, Diana decides to leave her marriage to Prince Charles.

My Take – While she passed away 24 years ago, Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to remain a prominent fascinating and tragic subject of several biographies and documentaries that aim to lay bare and capture her public and private life. And while at first glance, this recently released feature may seem like seems like yet another biography of the People’s Princess, it’s anything but.

After all it is directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, who like his previously helmed biopic the Oscar-nominated Jackie (2016) which followed Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in the week following her husband, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, brings another unconventional approach to look at a crucial period in Lady Diana’s life.

Written by Steven Knight, the film unfolds as a psychological horror and works more as a character study than a full-fledged biographical drama, depicting the story of woman who finds herself trapped within the confines of the royal institution that favors tradition and propriety above all else. Heavy-handed and a bit too long, the film explores Diana as a prisoner of the royal family in heart-wrenching and beautifully haunting fashion.

Set in December 1991, the story follows Diana (Kristen Stewart) who is forced to spend the Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk even as her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is unravelling, especially since she found out about his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith). It also doesn’t help that apart from her sons, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), the rest of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet) and Prince Philip (Richard Sammel) are largely indifferent and cold towards her, leaving her to find her only ally in Maggie (Sally Hawkins), the kind and supportive royal dresser.

To make matters worse, The Equerry, Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) keeps hounding her, reminding her to do her duty as British soldiers are willingly laying down their life for Queen and country, and by extension her. With pressure continuous mounting on her, Diana’s internal struggle becomes unbearable as she struggles to face life with an eating disorder, crumbling marriage and her inability to pretend she feels fine, when she is not.

While the film confirms early itself that it is fictionalized account, yet nevertheless it still draws inspiration from real-life events, as director Larraín is more interested in exploring and exploiting the titular character’s struggle with her mental health problems as well as the suffocation she felt amidst all the luxury of the British crown.

Despite being repeatedly told in the film that holidays are all part of fun by advisers and royals, the three days Diana spends at Sandringham seemed to be anything but. Instead it is more like a military operation, with every aspect of the festive period planned to the most precise detail like the time of arrival, the clothes they’re meant to wear, even how much they all weigh is recorded as part of the hi jinks that Diana is forced to abide by.

Stephen Knight’s writing doesn’t provide a sympathetic or even remotely likeable portrayal of the Royal Family, the Queen is a cold, glacial figure, showing more warmth and affection for her army of corgis than her own daughter-in-law. On the contrary it does not even glorify Diana, or sing paeans of her likeability or charm. Instead she is pictured as meek and vulnerable for most part of the film, caught in a gilded cage that she can’t seem to get out of.

The film peels off Diana’s facade of flawless perfection, and takes us on a journey to the recesses of a struggling mind and tormented soul. The most poignant part of Diana’s declining mental health is best manifested by the film in the manner in which she constantly seeks out her ‘home’ while at home, with her family. She literally mounts night escapades from Sandringham to go back to where her family once lived, in search of a childhood and a comforting sense of familiarity.

Although the story telling isn’t always linear and is stylized, director Larraín manages to keep involvement and interest, until late in the film when what seems like an arbitrary fashion-identity montage, which goes on too long and momentarily depletes tension.

Make no mistake, this is a slow film. Its plot does not move with the swiftness that some might expect. And how much you enjoy the film may depend on how much you know about, care about or remember Diana’s story. But where the film succeeds at doing most well is knitting together a fairy tale that is in all probability the most accurate depiction of what is in fact, the truth. Like Jackie, director Larraín makes great use of a melancholic musical score to portray struggle and a quest.

And of course like his previous film, the film stands on the shoulders of its titular lead’s performance. Thankfully, like Natalie Portman, Kristen Stewart too is wholly up to the task in what maybe her most successful, soulful, heartbreaking performance yet. From her impeccable accent to her innate vulnerability with a touch of instability, she embodies Diana like no other actress has. Acting awards should come in droves for Stewart’s performance as she creates a fragile and human Diana that goes beyond the glittering gowns and the blonde bangs.

In supporting roles, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Sean Harris, Jack Farthing, Stella Gonet, Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry are also very good. On the whole, ‘Spencer’ is an intriguing, beautiful and dark version of the Diana story.

Directed – 

Starring – Kristen Stewart, Sean Harris, Jack Farthing

Rated – R

Run Time – 117 minutes

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