Film Review: Spencer – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Steven Knight

Director: Pablo Larrain

Another film about Diana, Princess of Wales may seem superfluous but reflecting on her time in the Royal Family is certainly in fashion for filmmakers with very recent interpretations including The Crown and a much-panned Netflix musical. Now, Kristen Stewart joins a long line of actors who have portrayed Diana from Naomi Watts and Serena Scott to Elizabeth Debicki and Emma Corrin, in Pablo Larrain’s new movie Spencer, selected as one of the Headline Galas at the London Film Festival.

Taking place across three days at Sandringham as the family gathers for Christmas some time in the early 1990s, Spencer follows Diana through a confining series of dinners, photo-calls, church parades and private traditions as she struggles to meet the demands placed on her. Increasingly convinced she is being watched by Equerry Major Alistar Gregory, the whispers about her mental state only increase her disorientation and detachment while she hankers to pay a visit to her boarded-up family home.

Larrain is a superb psychological filmmaker and places his camera close to his subject’s face in order to investigate the layers of biography and public persona that his techniques try to strip away. As with Jackie, in Spencer Larrain takes a woman we think we know at the centre of the movie and probes her growing anguish, often with empathy but sometimes unsympathetically as he reframes and reimagines scenes playing-out behind closed doors – or sometimes gardens that are infeasibly light for 5pm in a British December.

To do that, Larrain has labelled his film a ‘fable’ so, like Festival opener The Harder They Fall, real people are placed in a constructed situation, drawing on biography points that we know publicly – her bulimia, love for her children and the inability or unwillingness to comply with protocol – and casts that within a fictionalised setting in a confined period that serves as proxy for a much wider flow of events.

Spencer is, in essence, a film about mental health, showing the deterioration of Diana using fantasy sequences, distorted camerawork that makes everything seemed heightened and Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral score that imposes and intimidates. For much of the film the Windsors sit in silent judgement, a closed group who leave Diana on the outside but, later, Larrain shifts focus to show us how others see the Princess’ erratic behaviour which warms the personalities of Prince Charles and the Queen in particular.

Stewart does convey a fear and claustrophobia growing in her performance to a pitch of hysteria feeling she has lost the girl she was, but it is a singular dimension of Diana while her deliberate acts of defiance are seen as impulsive reflections of her emotional state rather than a woman with choice and agency in her own life.

There are good supporting turns from Timothy Spall as Gregory, Jack Farthing as Charles and an imperious Stella Gonet as the Queen. And while Larrain’s techniques are exciting, Spencer doesn’t quite deliver during an overlong final third, a strange obsession with Anne Boleyn and the need to create a hopeful conclusion, all of which work a little too hard to be meaningful.

Spencer is screening at the London Film Festival.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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