The Pensive Effulgence of 'Spencer'

In martyrdom, is there salvation in release or only the remains of a tragedy bound by chains of tradition? Pablo Larraín is interested in the tragedy of Diana Spencer — her doom hangs heavy over the film as it hurls towards an inevitability with sly irony — but it’s not the main attraction. Instead, Larraín turns his eye to exactly who this woman was, not as an icon or figurehead or even her true nature, warts and all, for who can truly say? He instead looks at who she was in contrast to the rigid monarchy that surrounds her and watches over her every move. Her humanity has been documented a thousand times over, but never in such a unique or tender manner. Spencer is an ethereal masterpiece that will set the tone for this decade. It’s a hypnotic blaze of monarchical charades, externalizing the internal, processed through the eyes of a woman on the verge.

I’m sure I could ramble on about the technical splendor of this film, but I will not, for to speak on Larraín’s mastery of the art would be sententious of me. Of course, its majesty and sheen are stunning and in any just world, the art department will sweep awards season, but the film is not predisposed to draw attention to its beauty, so neither will I. Rather, what makes Spencer such a singular work is how unwilling it is to conform to tradition. It embodies the spirit of Spencer herself in its absolute defiance of the genre’s usual trappings, trading out the visualizing of Wikipedia articles for a dreamlike recounting of this eggshell trodden Christmas weekend. The film has an air about itself that is occasionally reminiscent of a nightmare, confined by the seen and unseen with no way to wake up, even while the walls close in. Anyone hoping for a historically accurate portrayal of one of English Royalty’s most infamous eras should shift expectations expeditiously, for there’s zero interest in accuracy or fact-relaying here. Larraín is much more beguiling than that.

Capturing the essence of Diana’s nature is no easy feat and has proven nigh impossible for many creators in the past, but Larraín bypasses those obstacles with his distinct approach. He walks hand-in-hand with an equally committed Stewart, whose inhabitance of the role is so transfixing that all else falls away as her presence dances across this film. Stewart carries herself like she’s stuck in a dance she wants no part of, gliding across the screen with outward elegance yet portraying her inner turmoil in the most nuanced physical affectations. This dance physically manifests in an explosion of tragic catharsis late in the film where Stewart completely lets loose. Despite this fascinating refinement, her performance works synchronously with Larraín’s sensibilities to create bursts that teeter on the line high camp and heaviest weights, never forgetting the queer delirium that the movie strives for.

His innate qualities as a filmmaker run along the lines of knowing when to lean into moments with earnest and when to observe with an over-the-top glee. Sincerity’s time in the sun is given mostly to Stewart, as she toes the line between overwrought mimicry and a sincere portrayal, as well as her brilliant co-stars who anchor key moments. Her tête-a-têtes with Hawkins, Spall, and Harris are all highlights, though the film’s crown jewels are two quieter moments, one early on with a young William and Harry and the other being a mythical montage toward the end. These moments are not literally or even figuratively quiet, as they do draw attention to themselves. The silence follows moments where Lady Di finds herself alone, free from suffocation. Its apparition hangs over the mood of these scenes and is a driving force, but indirectly so, allowing for Stewart to gnaw on the scenery and go back for the curtains.

Where its contemporaries fail, Spencer thrives, and where it transcends is in the simplest of movements, whether it’s the camera’s or Stewart’s, solidifying it as a new classic. It is an invigorating jolt of necessary cinema, not that we need more stories about Princess Di, but in its evocation. Films of this magnitude rarely operate on such a specific frequency, unafraid to commit to visions of madness and tragedy while expecting the audience to pick up the frequency in full. That approach is not just commendable, but shocking in bravado and a joy to watch. Larraín and company opened the curtains just to peer into one woman’s life through new eyes and the work will rest comfortably in the annals of great 21st-century cinema. A miracle in a world that needs it.

-August

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