The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema] - SPENCER | The Movie Waffler

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New Release Review [Cinema] - SPENCER

spencer review
Britain's royal family gathers for Christmas at Sandringham.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Pablo Larrain

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins

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After skewering the closest thing America has ever had to a royal family, the Kennedys, with 2016's Jackie, Pablo Larrain takes a similarly caustic approach to an actual royal family with Spencer. If you're the sort of person who orders "The People's Princess" commemorative plates from the back of Sunday tabloids, you'll probably want to give Larrain's latest a wide berth, as it's by no means a hagiography of either the Princess of Wales or the wider royal family.

Played by a commanding and arguably never better Kristen Stewart, Larrain's version of Diana falls somewhere between a doomed blonde in the Laura Palmer mode (there's even an explicit nod to Twin Peaks when Diana is seen mimicking the Man from Another Place dance) and the heroine of a gothic horror.

spencer review

Nothing is more chilling than the idea of a family get-together over Christmas. Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight set their drama, billed as a "fable from a true tragedy," during Christmas 1991, distilling two decades of hysteria into three days of anxiety. When Larrain's airborne camera approaches the grounds of the Sandringham Estate, it echoes how the eponymous prison is introduced at the beginning of The Shawshank Redemption. A shot borrowed from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with a dead pheasant standing in for roadkill, tells us what Larrain has in store. This is a horror movie set in Hell. And, of course, Hell is other people.


The other people in this case varies depending on which corner of the estate Larrain's busy camera has found. In the downstairs quarters, the servants, including an army of kitchen staff, refer to the royals as "they," as though to mention any names would summon trouble like saying Candyman five times. When the royals speak of "they" it's in reference to the public they in turn serve.

spencer review

The nature of servitude is explored here by contrasting the Sandringham staff, who seem a far more content bunch than the royals. Unlike their masters, the staff get to clock out. For the royals, their masters are always watching. Much of the tension comes from Diana's wilful courting of the spotlight, leading to her curtains being sewn up to keep the telescopic lens of the paparazzi away from her windows. The royals here are living in fear of the outside world, like little people kept in a giant's dollhouse. They're a Punch & Judy show put on for the British public, and can never stray from their lines, something Diana insists on by refusing to conform to set rules, placing the whole puppet show at risk.


Regardless of your feelings towards the monarchy, it's hard not to come away feeling a little sorry for this bunch. They may have comforts most of us will never know, but I certainly wouldn't swap places with them. That's not to say Larrain goes easy on them. The royals are portrayed here as being either downright mad or very, very sad. The ones who aren't mad are miserable. The only normal ones seem to be the young princes William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). In a heartbreaking scene, William pleads with his mother to stop acting crazy, terrified of what she might do to herself while shut away in a bathroom.

spencer review

Larrain embraces high camp for the purposes of both horror and humour. Diana is visited by ghosts both literal and metaphorical. A book about Anne Boleyn is mysteriously left in her bedroom with the intention of either gaslighting or enlightening her, and she begins to see the spirit of the ill-fated wife of Henry VIII. A visit to the crumbling mansion she once called home wouldn't be out of place in a David Selznick gothic melodrama, all crumbling stairs and haunting memories. A dinner scene involving the consumption of pearls sees the film stray into the territory of David Lynch, while cinematographer Claire Mathon's steadicam rushes through the corridors of Sandringham in a way that evokes the Overlook Hotel.

Spencer is surprisingly cinematic for a biopic of an Anglo-Saxon princess, but for all of Larrain's pulling from the horror genre and Knight's scabrous dialogue, the film ultimately rests on the bare shoulders of Stewart. The 31-year-old star is strikingly good here. It's the sort of performance that makes you lean forward in your seat so as to better breathe in her presence. As Diana, Stewart is both transformative and transportative, convincing us we're watching the doomed royal and that we're momentarily living in her world. I've always been unconvinced of Diana's people's princess legend, and Larrain has left me even more confused. Larrain's film keeps an open mind about its protagonist, but it's truly enamoured of the young woman she's portrayed by.

Spencer
 is in UK/ROI cinemas from November 5th.



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