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MOVIES: Spencer - Review

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The first thing to be aware of going into Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is that it’s not a conventional biopic. Set over three days on a critical weekend in Princess Diana’s life during the early ‘90s, the movie casts an insight into the moments when she realised that her marriage to Prince Charles wasn’t working out as intended. Three days spent at Christmas with the Royal Family is the perfect location for this Scenes From A Marriage-esque fable, and under the guiding hand of the director of Ema and Jackie, the ‘60s biopic about Jackie Kennedy, he crafts a film that’s sure to be divisive upon its wide release. It’s more of a ghost story, and right from the start, Diana asks if the Royal Family will one day kill her.

She’s presented as a loose cannon in a family steeped in tradition. From the moment she arrives to the Royal Family’s place of residence, she’s late – and has no interest in being early. This technically works as a one-location drama, with echoes of the likes of The Shining and Russian Ark, it emerges as a film steeped in the sense of inescapable dread and tragedy. You know the story. Watching Diana live her life and realise that everything isn’t turning out the way it intended is heartbreaking – brought to life by a fantastic Kristen Stewart, as excellent as she is in pretty much everything nowadays – and for a film that absolutely needs its lead actor to get everything right, Spencer very much does so. It takes things to another level – you won’t mistake this for The Crown anytime soon - it’s more mature, human, more risk-taking – exactly what you’d expect from the director of Jackie and the writer of Peaky Blinders. Both are anything but conventional - why should this be?

Steven Knight has eschewed from convention before and he lends his hand to the script superbly. He understands the mannerisms and humour that makes Diana distinctively different from the royal family and that comes across in Stewart’s performance, right from the start you’re made aware that she doesn’t fit in with the royals and Diana knows it too. Her first words are blunt and to the point – lost in the middle of nowhere, despite having spent her childhood there – Diana loudly exclaims – “Where the fuck am I?” – and shows up to shocked reactions in a café asking for directions. It’s a bold introduction to say the least, and bold and fearless is exactly what Spencer is aiming for.

This film has echoes of a gothic tragedy – Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca springs to mind here, and it utilises Sandringham to craft a hostile location where even the curtains feel unwelcoming. Whilst the film may lay on its metaphors a bit thick at times and isn’t entirely subtle with them or convincing, that is arguably the weakest link of the film – as everything else just works perfectly. Jonny Greenwood’s score is next-level good, as is the soundtrack choices – Greenwood of course has experience on Phantom Thread and feels tailor-made for a film like this, aiding the gothic atmosphere of the setting to perfection – everywhere is presented as haunting and cold from the start – the Christmas setting notwithstanding – and that extends to the temporary residents of the Palace. Diana hates tradition – she hates the rules laid down to her by the Monarchy, being told what to wear for what meal, being told what to do on each day.

Even the servants of the royals are a cog in their machine – both Sally Hawkins and Sean Harris, as excellent as ever – whilst appearing as Diana’s confidant in person, are quick to remind her that information is currency – and nothing is a secret in these walls. If Diana breaks the machine, then she loses them – and it’s a joy watching Stewart, Hawkins and Harris navigate the walls of monarchy and the Royal family themselves, appropriately are distant as a result, cold and aloof – all cut from the same cloth.

Steven Knight might have given one of his best scripts yet – the Peaky Blinders veteran is firing on all cylinders. Maximising the potential of Pablo Larraín’s direction, it’s a winning combination that sees Stewart maybe deliver her best performance this side of Personal Shopper. Much like that film, this too – is a ghost story – only one of the future, rather than the past.

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