Review: Spencer – Bleak and Beautifully Surreal

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70%
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Great

Kristen Stewart's performance is career-defining in the new Monarchy drama, but the details let it down slightly.

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I have never had any interest in the Royal family. The elements of this film that drew me in were simply the talents of leading actress Kristen Stewart and score composer Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame), so I was pleasantly surprised when Spencer, the new film from Jackie director Pablo Larrain, was formally and ideologically more in sync with The Shining than other Monarchy-focused dramas like Stephen Frear’s The Queen (2006). Whilst I had expected Kristen Stewart’s performance to be impressive, I was underprepared for her startling portrayal of Princess Diana, as in Spencer she genuinely transforms.

It is also a shockingly and unexpectedly bleak film. Perhaps my lacking background knowledge is showing here (or not, as the opening intertitle states that this film is a ‘fable’ based upon reality),but the portrayal of Diana’s eating disorder in particular made extended sequences of Spencer extremely difficult to sit through on a personal level (I deal with one myself, which enhanced the feelings, but the discomfort was palpable). The general feeling of the film is a depressive and chaotic discomfort – the slow pacing made the film’s length felt but also places the spectator in the same position as Diana’s character, feeling as if they are in a temporal limbo of sorts, lacking control and awareness of their position. Greenwood’s free-jazz style score influences that same feeling of chaos and adds beautifully to that surrealism that the film gradually veers into in a way similar to Florian Zeller’s The Father from last year.

It’s a gradual film in general, which is a pleasant and welcome switch from the direction that the majority of drama seems to be heading towards in film as a whole. Its patience is a virtue, allowing the unsaid to boil, letting dialogue become emotional weaponry and letting Stewart really act without ever needing to be extreme or over the top. Her use of simple gestures, aided by the screenplay’s quietly built tension, gives the film an eerie feeling as if at any moment it could move to a boiling point. I do think that it oversteps in some directions, and it doesn’t fully earn its ending which seems to come out of nowhere, but I do think it’s a very strong and a very watchable film regardless. It just wants to have its cake and eat it too, and it fumbles slightly trying to do too much and cover too many different ideas (for example, the ideas about the other members of the Royal family here are very muddled – sometimes it villainises them and other times it seems to hint that they’re secretly the protagonists).

The film is undoubtedly at its best when it steps back slightly and allows Stewart to take centre stage. Cinematographer Claire Mathon, likely most known for her work on Celine Sciamma’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, also lets Stewart shine as the camera sticks closely to her character almost constantly, creating much of the intimacy that the film is trying to reach.

As far as Monarchy dramas go, this is a standout for its subversion of the sub-genre and for Stewart’s performance, which may see her complete the step back towards critical acclaim since starring in the Twilight series as her co-star Robert Pattinson has managed. The film looks and sounds great, but lacks a little extra narrative focus that would have elevated it to being in the position among the best films of the year.

Spencer is now in cinemas, certificate 12A. Watch the trailer below:

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Second year film student - film, music and poetry fan!

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