Spencer (2021)

Neon

Spencer opens with a long, static shot of a deserted kitchen, dimly lit by the barely awake sunshine of a misty early morning, eerie with silence. Typically bustling with life, filled with busy people working hard to prepare meals on time, the place is ominously empty. While inspecting this clinical landscape of studiously kept surfaces and perfectly arranged kitchenware, our gaze locks onto a sign hanging overhead. Using the familiar graphic template of the “Keep calm and carry on” slogan – itself a motivational poster from the times of The Blitz now reduced to a cliché souvenir one is expected to bring home from a trip to London as a royal keepsake – the sign reads “Keep the noise to a minimum. They can hear you”.  

Only someone completely oblivious to the tragic story of Princess Diana would overlook the symbolic importance of this sign, which surely refers not only to the kitchen staff who must retain the highest level of decorum while cooking for Her Majesty and her family. It’s not merely a reminder about refraining from propagating vacuous gossip or from using unparliamentary language. It is a reminder that in the House of Windsor, one is to always keep quiet, follow the rules and never even dream of letting their own personality protrude through the mask of The Crown. Ironically, Diana flouted all those rules. She led from the heart, refused to wear a mask and said what she meant instead of what she was expected to say.  

This startling image inserted into the film as a form of a greeting is no accident. In fact, it is somewhat customary for Pablo Larraín to reveal his hand briefly in this manner. For instance, his 2019 Ema – a film about a young Chilean tired of playing by the rules and refusing to carry the burden of her country’s recent history – opens with a stunning shot of traffic lights on fire. Jackie – a film about a woman orphaned and abandoned after her husband’s death, eerily similar in tone and thematic gravity to Spencer – starts with a startling visage of Natalie Portman in tears. Handheld and in beautiful close-up, Larraín needs no words to telegraph his intentions as he shows Portman’s character defenceless, vulnerable and alone. He can summarize the theses of his films into singular images, like the image of an egg being fried and eventually burned to bits in Post Mortem, as if to symbolize the pent-up anger rising in the film’s protagonist played so perfectly by Alfredo Castro.  

Therefore, it is probably best not to interpret anything in Spencer literally, even if the film intercepts reality on occasion by referring to Diana’s emotional state, her struggle with bulimia or by using established facts, such as the state of her marriage at the time, or the nature of her relationship with her two young sons, William and Harry. In fairness, Larraín lets it be known before the film even begins by calling it a ‘fable from a true tragedy’. He lets the viewers know that what they are about to experience is not a biopic aspiring to any form of factual accuracy. They are expected to adjust their frequencies accordingly to interpret the narrative symbolically. Because the genius of this movie is extratextual. It’s everywhere but in the primary sphere of the narrative.  

Consequently, if one fails or forgets to attune themselves to what the filmmaker is attempting to accomplish, they will find Spencer at the very least disappointing and possibly offensively inaccurate because, as far as I am concerned, the vast majority of what happens in the movie is completely fabricated. It’s not my place to interrogate whether this Christmas ever happened, if Diana felt kinship with Anne Boleyn or if Charles had in fact given her the same pearls as his mistress. It’s irrelevant because the film doesn’t take place in any form of tangible reality. Instead, it takes place inside Diana’s headspace. Not only do we see the world through her eyes, but we also feel what she feels and experience what she experiences thanks to Larraín’s artistic decision-making and complete yet ingeniously subtle control over the sensory impact of the entire film.  

However, none of it would be possible without an appropriate performative conduit, which Kristen Stewart clearly knew from the very outset. Even though she comes quite close to mimicking Diana’s mannerisms, her accent and body language, Stewart interprets her character in a way that amplifies what’s on the page and harmonizes with the symbolic language found between the lines of dialogue. Her syncopated performance is truly mesmerizing in the way she channels vulnerability, the feeling of entrapment and abandonment, while commanding the screen and letting everyone know Diana’s famed non-conformity was nothing short of a superpower. She portrays Diana as a jazz sax player who busts in on a string quartet performing a well-rehearsed Bach piece and takes over with a soulful solo that – while in the appropriate key – completely overshadows the familiarity and expectedness of the piece of music which is now just background noise. In fact, Jonny Greenwood’s score reflects this metaphor quite literally by way of using a rich in extensions jazz harmony superimposed over classically harmonious backdrop of strings and keys. Even in the sphere of music the film lets it be known it is focused on the grinding dissonance of minor ninths and tritones between Diana’s jazz soul and the ominous-yet-familiar minor keys of the Royal backdrop.  

With this overwhelming and impeccably ingenious accompaniment, Stewart spreads her wings and paints a portrait of Diana’s tortured soul, as opposed to trying to replicate her bodily visage. She’s anxious, unsettled and distraught in the way she moves through the frame and blurs the line between what’s real and what’s a disturbing phantasmagoria. As a result, we get to experience and feel the horror of having to consume food with dozens of piercing stares tearing Diana limb from limb. We are in her head when she’s strangled by the pearls she knows her traitorous husband also gave to his lover. We nearly choke ourselves when she imagines eating them smothered in the sickly-green nettle soup (which was ironically one of Diana’s favourite dishes). We are with her when she comes close to throwing herself down the stairs, taken to the brink by the tightening noose of the Royal family dead set on brainwashing her own sons to conform and turn against her. Finally, we are on her shoulder as she breaks out of the iron maiden of obedience, unrestrained and liberated, sharing in the salty taste of her freedom; even if we know full well there is no happy ending to be had.  

For any film to come together in such a powerful way and to persist in such harmonious perfection throughout its entire runtime a multitude of stars must align. Spencer is not a fluke or a lightning in a bottle, though. It’s not a miraculous happenstance that the filmmakers incidentally stepped into. This film is a work of calculated genius that knowingly sets all its constituent elements to elevate one another, to amplify the story and to conjure an oneiric masterpiece that makes full use of all assets of the cinematic language. Spencer uses visuals, sound, performance and the subliminal language of symbolic poetry to merge into a monument to Diana’s memory that brings her soul, heart and mind to the forefront of her visage and gives us all a chance to understand and experience what it was like to be in her skin for ninety minutes.  

And that, my dear reader, doesn’t just happen. A movie this perfect is only possible when everyone involved goes above and beyond the call of duty and transcends their own perceived limitations as actors, screenwriters, composers, editors, cinematographers and directors. So, let the record state that Spencer is probably the most important and the most accomplished film of this year. A truly transcendent experience. A poem of vulnerability, abandonment, entrapment and liberation. 

Perfection. 

One thought on “Spencer (2021)

  1. Pingback: Drawing a Line under 2021 | Flasz On Film

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