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Review: 'Spencer' (2021) Dir. Pablo Larraín

Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Elizabeth Berrington and Amy Manson


Inspired by events surrounding the breakdown of the marriage between HRH Prince Charles and HRH Diana Spencer, an off-kilter, psychological narrative is used to end the fairy tale...

Christmas, 1991. The Royal Family arrives at Sandringham to spend the festive season together, spearheaded by HRH Elizabeth II (Gonet) and HRH The Duke Of Edinburgh (Sammel), with their children, partners and families.

HRH Diana, The Princess Of Wales (Stewart), is struggling with the evident failure of her marriage to HRH Charles, The Prince Of Wales (Farthing). She keeps a brave face to protect her two sons, but also her dignity in a family that has no room for disappointment.

Diana is surrounded by often supportive staff like Head Chef McGrady (Harris), Groundskeeper Alistair (Spall) and Royal Dresser Maggie (Hawkins) to help her make sense of what she must do to preserve the past, present and future of not just the Royal family, but her own life...

Released in the latter half of 2021 when the world was becoming more and more infatuated with the scandals and secrets of the Royal family, Spencer shines the light on the People's Princess. While not a straightforward biopic, there is enough on offer here looking into The Firm that reminds us why shows such as The Crown and Downton Abbey and public figures like Harry and Meghan are a constant obsession with us ordinary folk into a very British lifestyle we will never fully comprehend.

Director Pablo Larraín who brought us 2016s Jackie uses a similar style to show both the strengths and fragility of a women taken into a world she doesn't always understand, but fights to retain their humanity as the risk of it being lost. This is quite simply Kristen Stewart's film. Playing Diana, Princess of Wales, Stewart is transformed into Diana that allows her to shed an often wild, rebellious and reckless character style and immerse herself in grounded material and intense drama to let her acting ability take the lead more than anything else.

Stewart has enough material both with the tragic persona of Diana and also exploring the psychological effects she may have experienced to really take this role to heart. She carries the story, and while the narrative isn't set over a long period of time, it's Stewart who we are constantly watching and experiencing on this journey. With solid support from the likes of Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall and Jack Farthing, there is little not to find engaging.

There is no room for scandal or secret, and no room for Diana to show humanity and break away from the family, especially due to how popular she is with the public.

Set at Christmas across the Sandringham Estate in 1991, this was as time when the media frenzy surrounding Diana and Charles was rife as cracks appeared and they marriage was all but over, yet their public face was to retain solidity and union that represented the Royals.

Norfolk, where the Sandringham Estate is located, is hauntingly beautiful in the foggy winter months, still and often eerie with lack of apparent festive cheer life. Cinematographer Claire Mathon refrains from any glitz or glamour, but just focuses on the majesty of the world lived in, with long corridors, tall dining rooms framed with large paintings and a general sense of having nothing to want for.

Even while the privacy of the Royal family is secure in the house, we still see how regimental and routine life must be. Mathon captures the old-fashioned regal splendour of the Royal family with tight framing and vast shots of the estate, but accompanied by an off-beat jazz/scat score by Jonny Greenwood of Brit-pop band Radiohead, we are teased with psychological tricks and breakdowns Diana experiences. Be this from experiencing visions of former Queens of England or battling self-harm and an eating disorder, it slowly reels you in and wraps you up in Diana's lonely and isolated world.

There is unmistakable attention to detail in the costume, hair and make-up, set design and authentic locations to replicate this absorbing, fairy-tale world from the outside but a soulless, routine led world from the inside. It's hard to believe the amount of control forced upon Diana, and the family for that effect, such as being told what to wear for what meal / occasion and having curtains wired shut to prevent press snapping pictures. Yet all this just adds to the steady breakdown and increased pressure of having to be "two people" - one the people want to see, and the real one.

It's hard to imagine if this rather simple glimpse into a few days over such an extraordinary period in history for Diana and Charles would be as interesting were it not for the cast and crew used. It clocks in at just under two hours and is free from a typical three act structure, and it won't be for everyone. There could have been much more to address and explore in a biopic such as this, but Larraín makes it clear from the start this isn't a typical biopic, so enter cautiously but prepare to have your interest piqued.

Presented almost as a sombre dream, 'Spencer' is a lonely, isolating and often uncomfortable experience but hard to ignore such a fascinating character study of as Diana, the People's Princess. by a brilliant Kristen Stewart.

'Spencer' is a co-production between Komplizen Film, Fabula, Shoebox Films and FilmNation Entertainment

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