Review: Spencer (2021)

Preamble

Guess who’s back? Before I start quoting Eminem verbatim, let’s address the elephant in the room. It’s been over a month since a blog post, but I’m back now, raring to go with a film I’ve been meaning to catch up with. What did you think of Spencer? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

In recent years, Diana, Princess of Wales has been rife with interest. The rather safe and trite, Diana (2013) attempted to explore Spencer’s relationship with heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan. Meanwhile, the recent season of The Crown depicted the souring relationship between the late Princess and Prince Charles, with vivid intensity. It’s a credit to Spencer that it’s able to differentiate itself from these recent endeavours. In fact, the film proves to be an oppressive Gothic horror film with fascinating subtext and historical parallels.

Taking place over three days during the festive period, Spencer is about Diana (Kristen Stewart) attempting to survive the gruelling and regimented schedule the Royal Family has set out for her at Sandringham. To compound matters, tensions between the Princess of Wales and the Monarchy have increased due to several encounters Wales has had with the press and tabloids.

In its filmmaking, Spencer surprisingly takes its cues from horror movies such as The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. One sequence that particularly evokes the 1980 film comes from the title sequence, where we get a protracted bird’s eye view shot of Diana’s car, entering the grounds of Sandringham. At this moment, Jonny Greenwood’s score flickers between the use of buoyant trumpets (representing Diana’s freewheeling spirit) and quite a sharp use of string to evoke the horrific situation that Diana is about to enter. With the character’s car looking like a tiny spec among a well decorated bit of greenery, and the use of foreboding music; the scene calls back to the moment in The Shining when Jack Torrence is overlooking his wife and son in the hedge maze.

Moments like this, along with a general sense of the Monarchy being an omnipresent force that can hear and see everything anyone does, carve out Spencer’s identity as a horror movie. Even the Queen, who typically exists as a warm grandmother figure, representing noble values from a nostalgic era is transformed into a near-silent and judgemental crime boss figure. These aspects carry a subversive power that made watching the film an electrifying experience.

However, the moments of direction that surprised me the most came in the latter stages of the film. Some of these sequences share the same liberating and ethereal qualities of Terrence Malick’s films, complete with sun-soaked vistas and handheld camera moves.

In her Oscar-nominated turn as Diana, Kristen Stewart remarkably captures the appealing qualities of the Princess of Wales, whether it’s her shy but confident photographic grace or playful sense of kindness. These aspects are contrasted with a palpable sense of fury and paranoia that seek to sink the character further into hopelessness and despair.

Much like Pablo Larrain’s other female-centric biopic, Jackie, Spencer is about the existential angst from existing in a long-standing institution, and the trauma that can come from trying to stamp one’s identity upon said institution. Jackie had a raw emotional truth from the title character trying to reconcile all the morphing contradictions of her late husband- as a man, president and father. This is in contrast to Spencer, which attempts to harmonise gothic sensibilities and historical weight.

These two aspects come to the fore in the last act; whereby Diana visits her dilapidated childhood home. Within it, she reconnects with her energetic and optimistic childhood self. But she also finds the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Throughout the film, she has found kinship with the historical figure, due to having a husband who cheated on her and got rid of her in a cruelly public manner. It’s within these moments that Spencer sings. Much like the title character remarks upon Sandringham early in the film- “Here, there is only one tense. There is no future. The past and the present are the same thing”, Spencer comes alive in the moments when Diana is lost in the fog of where the past starts and the present ends.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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