Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 09, 2021 8:30 pm 
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The madness and escape of Princess Diana

If the royal family hate "The Crown" they will loathe Spencer, a fantasy of the crackup of Princess Diana that depicts the British monarchs and their life in most unflattering terms. That is, insofar as the audience sees Prince Charles, the Queen, or anyone directly of the "royals" (a term I assume they also deplore). Charles (Jack Farthing of The Riot Club) is a shriveled, unattractive man, as dried up as Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall), a pinched, shrunken man responsible for proper royal proceedings, an invented character. Another invention is the lady-in-waiting known only as Maggie (Mike Leigh regular Sally Hawkins), to whom Diana is close and without whom she is lost.

All of these are in a way irrelevant. The triumph of Spencer is to serve as a surreal, chilly nightmare visual poem of royal isolation and loneliness. This is an elegant, virtually real-time Christmas unraveling of Lady Diana, ten years into the impulsive marriage with Prince Charles, a union that never really satisfied either and now is coming to an end. Kristen Stewart gives a terrific lead performance, possessing the role, always looking right primarily in a series of striking tableaux that linger in the mind. (Sometimes her whispered lines are hard to follow, but that also doesn't matter.) The only trouble is that, this being primarily a mood piece, the film has no major historical events to recount, several that it invents are unconvincing, and its ending, though shocking in a way, hasn't the sense of a climax. It's just Lady Di, kidnapping Princes Harry and William in the middle of a pheasant shooting event, taking them away in a sports car to feast on Kentucky Fried Chicken on a bench within view of London Bridge. When the KFC agent asks her for a name, she says, "Spencer." The End.

The director, Pablo Larraín, a Chilean, is most notable for films depicting the suffocating mood in his country of origin under the shadow of dictatorship before his own time, Tony Manero (NYFF 2008) and Post Mortem (NYFF 2010), both featuring the great Alfredo Castro, also notable in The Club, a third fine Chilean film about a group of disgraced Chilean priests and nuns in hiding. (I was not a big fan of his 2016 Jackie , the film most obviously close to this one.) It feels to me that Larraín has allowed his sense of malaise and moral decay to ooze into Sandringham, the Queen's privately owned palatial estate in Norfolk, a favorite place for the royal family and where they spend Christmas and like to hunt. The trick is - something that will almost seem completely invented for the film but has an element of truth - the house where Diana grew up is quite nearby, and she keeps wandering off there these several Christmas days, longing to escape her unhappy marriage and the confinement of royal life.

It all seems crazier because this is from the point of view of Diana herself, but if anything, her behavior at this time may have been more extreme than depicted here. Yelling at Charles and hitting him even when he was at prayers - this we don't see. Constantly chafing with order and schedule of the royal household we do see.

A major focus is on clothes and food, primary avenues through which we feel what a prison this world had become for Lady Di. Her bulimia is a known thing - clearly everyone knows everything - and her unhealthy relationship to food is dramatically heightened by constant depictions of the grandiose royal kitchen at Sandringham, whose red-headed chef (Sean Harris) Diana is on a familiar basis with. He harangues and instructs the large kitchen staff, intoning the menus to them, including fifteen deserts for one celebratory Christmas meal. Many of us mere mortals who have felt the pressure to be celebratory at Christmas as agonizing, can imagine the surreal torment of such feasting for the Princess, who is losing weight apace.

Worse still is a regime of many outfits that are all pre-chosen and lined up with labels, "Christmas Morning, "Church," and so on on them. Deviation is not tolerated. How would it feel to be a beautiful, stylish young woman and be told what to wear every minute of the day? Diana has constant fights with dressers and the majordomo over mealtime appearances, clothes and curtains (which at one point are sewn shut to make sure she's hidden from photographers), and she is constantly late. Her delays before required appearances are pathetic attempts at escaping from a routine that surrounds her like a vice.

Scenes between Diana and her two sons, Princes Harry and William, are particularly touching: the only clear, strong emotional sense we get of what it would be like to be near Diana and see her crumbling comes through the boys. Jack Nielen as William and Freddie Spry as Harry are fantastic; a scene where they are laughing and talking about Christmas presents with their mother is incredibly real. It's William's anxiety over his mother's strange behavior that most touches us. And yet, she will run off with them for the fast food feast lark and things are left up in the air. Only seeing Diana in a baseball cap and presiding over fast food indicate that she is about to leave the royal life behind once and for all.

Most of the way, we have seen Diana flailing about with no sense that she can ever escape. In Steven Knight's clever screenplay, a skeleton key comes when in an open field she spots a far-off scarecrow called Bertie that she knew in her youth, when she was Diana Spencer. She rescues the tattered coat on Bertie and takes it back to her rooms at Sandringham. She visits the boarded up house where she used to live and recalls a time when she was herself. She becomes focused, in her tormented confusion, on the idea that her sons mustn't join their father's pheasant-hunting cohort. She finds the hunt dangerous, not only in itself but because she identifies with the pheasants. The royal tradition of hunting linked with military discipline sums up all she hates about her husband's world.

All this is quite real, and so the only weakness of Larraín's haunting, poetic depiction of events is that he makes them seem dreamlike. Diana's picking up of a big biography of Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by Henry VIII for alleged adultery, and so strongly identifying with this figure that Anne starts to appear to her in three dimensions and she finally imagines herself in Anne Boleyn's clothes and headdress. A climactic "crazy" montage is simply one that shows Diana in a succession of different outfits and poses. A life so focused on the visual is itself crazy; filmmaking itself partakes of the surreal as the director has done throughout his career.

It's a stunning film. The only shortcoming apart from the undercutting of its historical events' own reality is that the dialogue often seems irrelevant to the powerful visuals by leading French cinematographer Claire Mathin, which, combined with Jonny Greenwood's sepulchral score, is enough to create a world of gilded imprisonment and madness. I described The Club as "largely a mood piece, with the overtones and atmosphere of a horror movie, without much plot." In the background here there is some of an element in his best films too: a dubious political order, here, the one of propping up the immensely costly image of royal grandeur. For what doesn't work so well, there is the full compensation of a splendid Kristen Stewart.

Spencer, 117 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 3, 2021, showing at Telluride, Toronto, Zurich, London and other 15 other international film festivals. US theatrical release Nov. 5. Metacritic rating: 77%.

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