Spencer (2021) – Film Review
Director: Pablo Larrain
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris
By @Roger Crow
One of the earliest scenes in the new Princess Diana biopic sees the military carry formidable cases into the Queen’s Sandringham Estate kitchen.
It looks like said boxes might contain heavy artillery, and instantly you feel Spencer could be a thriller. But there’s no rocket launchers or bazookas inside. Just food. Lots of elegant, exotic, beautiful food.
I’ve never seen such exotic stores of food used in such a weaponised way before, but, given Diana’s often toxic relationship with food or lack of it, the message is obvious. And throughout the movie, that array of produce is everywhere. Sean Harris, light years away from playing the bad guy in the Mission: Impossible movies, is the Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady, who is far closer to screen Diana than Charles is. But then again, just about every non-royal in the movie comes across as more affectionate than the family at the heart of the drama.
It’s December 1991, and while the royals prepare to spend the Christmas hols at Sandringham, Diana, Princess of Wales, is lost, in more ways than one. Relations with husband Prince Charles are strained to say the least.
Thankfully McGrady crosses paths with her while Diana muses about the long-abandoned neighbouring estate, Park House. It was once her childhood home, and a scarecrow is wearing a coat which may as well be her “Rosebud”.
While Spencer is no Citizen Kane, it’s arguably more satisfying than Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, a study of JFK’s widow, Jackie Kennedy. That was also a close-up examination of one woman coming to terms with a broken relationship, in that case obviously one shattered by assassination. In this case, estrangement.
Diana’s fragile mental state and apparent light grip on reality could send the movie into parody, but Larrain and ever reliable writer Steven Knight cleverly weave together imagined dream sequences and reality to the point where you wonder if she does actually eat pearls in her soup, or in the most excruciating scene, cut her arm.
Kristen Stewart would have been at the bottom of my list of possible thesps to play the key part. However, she captures some of the nuances of the much missed Diana. It’s a more interesting take than The Crown’s interpretation, which will no doubt be dialled down for the next highly anticipated run.
Solid support comes from the dreamy Sally Hawkins as Maggie, Diana’s Edith Head-inspired dresser, one of the few warm characters in the movie. Emphasis on ‘character’ because obviously this is a version of events rather than the real thing, which few of us were privy to. (If you were, congratulations).
A bombshell on the beach is a reminder of why Sally is one of our greatest stars. As is Tim Spall, whose Equerry Major Alistair Gregory looks like a faithful bloodhound.
An early scene is reminiscent of The Shining as Diana has a troubled Christmas Eve binge in a food locker. It’s beautifully handled as Gregory warns of the danger of the Press and their powerful lenses. Clearly this Diana couldn’t care less, despite one of those obligatory Notting Hill-style scenes where the Press go nuts with their cameras, like a pack of ravenous dogs fighting over a scrap of meat.
Stitching the movie together is Johnny Greenwood’s glorious jazzy bluesy score, which gives Spencer an anything goes quality, and not in the Cole Porter sense.
The eponymous heroine is obviously hugely troubled, unloved by some, adored by others, and in a limbo state between past and present.
It’s an odd movie, and as weird, wonderful and unusual as anything you’ll see all year. There are times it’s reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, though ‘Wounded Pheasant’ would have been apt, but too brutal an alternate title.
While some will be annoyed that key roles come across like video game avatars or non-playable characters, Spencer is a fascinating take on a 30-year-old chapter in Diana’s life.
One of the weirdest touches is the track at the end of the movie, ‘All I Need is a Miracle’. I have no idea how important that was to Diana, William and Harry, but the fact it’s rattling through my head the next day means it has a strange new relevance: a catchy, bouncy slice of long forgotten pop that is now synonymous with a freedom of sorts from the madness of a dark fairy tale.
You may hate it, and I doubt the box office takings will be anything other than modest, but seen in a VIP setting with uber comfy reclining seats, I was transfixed from the first second to the end of those titles.
Golden Globes, Baftas and Oscars are inevitable, but many such gongs are absolute nonsense as we all know. This is a gloriously offbeat tale that deserves to be seen on the big screen rather than TV where any sense of flow is ruined by your phone sending you irrelevant messages every five minutes.
Roger saw Spencer at VIP Cineworld, York