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‘Spencer’ film review: Darker version of the Diana story

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At first glance, recently released film Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain (known for directing Oscar-nominated Jackie in 2016) seems like yet another biography of the People’s Princess. Only, it’s anything but.

‘Spencer’ film review: Darker version of the Diana story
Over the years, there have been several biographies that aim to capture the life of The Late Diana, Princess of Wales, on film. Two of the more prominent feature films that come to mind are The Queen (2006) and Diana (2013), while documentaries on Diana Spencer’s life come at a dime for a dozen.
At first glance, recently released film Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain (known for directing Oscar-nominated Jackie in 2016) seems like yet another biography of the People’s Princess. Only, it’s anything but.
In fact, no sooner does the film’s opening sequence plays out does a title card read: ‘A fable from a true tragedy’. This is roughly about the time you know that you’re in for more than the usual creative license in re-telling the life and times of Britain’s most popular Royal. Only, the film isn’t a re-telling.
In fact, Spencer is set across three days — Christmas Eve, Christmas and Boxing Day — in 1991, at the Royal Family’s iconic Sandringham Estate, which is when and where Princess Diana is believed to have taken the decision to end her marriage to Prince Charles.
The film does not glorify Diana, or sing paeans of her likeability or charm. On the contrary, It peels off Diana’s façade of flawless perfection, and takes us on a journey to the recesses of a struggling mind and tormented soul. Spencer is dark, cerebral and ominous.
The film’s opening screenplay is fraught with foreboding. No sooner does it begin — and several times in the middle — you’re greeted with deathly slowness, pregnant silences and a background score that can only make you expect tragedy at every turn.
Diana (played by Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame) is pictured as meek and vulnerable for most part of the film — caught in a gilded cage that she can’t seem to get out of.
Here’s the setting: the marriage between Diana and Charles (Jack Farthing) is rocky at best, so much so that the couple do not even pretend that all’s well. Caught in the crossfire are William and Harry who share a special bond with their mother.
The Royal Family is portrayed as icy — uncaring, curt and condescending. The film itself makes several references to the cold: it is set in winter, Diana and the children keep complaining about the temperature at Sandringham House, and the shots of Diana in the cold of the night make you instinctively warm your hands up.
This is symbolic. It’s indicative of Diana’s growing alienation from the Family, as a Royal Divorce seems inevitable. Larrain wants you to empathize with the woman. He succeeds.
Through the film, Diana’s mental health unravels from within the confines of Sandringham at Christmas. She struggles with her bulimia, sees apparitions and harms herself, as she struggles at coming to terms with unfaithfulness in her marriage and the feeling of being a prisoner of sorts, albeit within a palace.
Adding to it all, a former military man (Timothy Spall) has been charged with Sandringham’s upkeep, including keeping a close watch on Diana’s movements within and from the palace.
The most poignant part of Diana’s declining mental health is best manifested by the film in the manner in which she constantly seeks out her ‘home’ while at home, with her family. She literally mounts night escapades from Sandringham to go back to where her family once lived, in search of a childhood and a comforting sense of familiarity.
What Spencer succeeds at doing well is knitting together a “fable” that is in all probability the most accurate depiction of what is in fact, the truth. Like Jackie, Larrain makes great use of a melancholic musical score to portray struggle and a quest. The film pulls no stops in painting a picture of Diana’s escape from a life that keeps stifling her as the days ago by.
Spencer makes great use of cinematography as powerful tool in its portrayal of Diana’s struggle. We’re greeted by shaky cameras and near-uncomfortable close-ups in the initial parts of the film, when Diana is introduced. At every turn, the camera goes the extra mile in suggesting that the film’s protagonist is vulnerable. The musical melancholy that accompanies these pictures only add to the messaging.
Make no mistake: Spencer is a slow film. Its plot does not move with the swiftness that some might expect. It’s almost as if Larrain wants you to hang around Diana and help her grieve the loss of her freedom, autonomy and individuality. It’s tragic ballad on film.
Spencer scores in its wardrobe, production design and an interesting ending. For all its portrayal of struggle and Diana’s quest to go back to her roots, the rather intriguing culmination of this all (I won’t give away much) makes you believe that poetry can indeed be recited on film.
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