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LFF 2021 Review: Spencer

Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín is among this year’s most highly awaited Hollywood films and a headline gala at BFI London Film Festival.

Pablo Larraín’s sublime ‘fable from a true story’ imagines a Christmas weekend at Sandringham in the early 1990s, as an unhappy Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) contemplates saying ‘no’.

Diana is dying on the vine, showing only flashes of her former effervescence.

Hers is the world’s most scrutinised persona since she began living the fairy-tale life of a girl who grew up to marry a prince; in reality, her husband (Jack Farthing) rather publicly loves someone else.

She’s also suffocating under the expectations of total subservience to Royal protocol.

The film hopes to plunge audiences into a world where every polished spoon and heavy curtain, every steely stare from staff, even a seemingly ‘jolly’ Christmas tradition, expresses Her Majesty’s disapproval of the young princess.

When it comes to visual aesthetics, Spencer scores greatly and feels like observing a huge colourful painting in a golden frame, hung up in a posh hall of masterpieces.

At times, the slow-motion flare of Diana’s bridal dress scraping the mud or the famous white gown circling the floor reminded me of (Bollywood director) Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s filmmaking style, wherein the floating movement of clothing always represents liberation.

Even after the credits roll, a part of me feels left behind in the lavish estate. The entrapment, emotional turmoil and loneliness which Diana has faced, feels so personal and the visual tropes only enhance these sentiments.

For instance, wide-shots of the Sandringham estate capture its beauty and lush greenery, which is juxtaposed with a macabre close-up shot of a dead bird on the road.

Such sights aptly convey the emotions and mentality of Princess Diana of how the external beauty is guarding her internal suffocation, which is very brilliantly portrayed by Kristen Stewart (more on the performance later).

Through metaphorical dialogues, Diana’s pain is visually emphasised. A line where she compares Paparazzi cameras to a microscope and how she’s an ‘insect on disc’ whose being ripped apart is incredibly vivid in highlighting the detrimental thoughts orbiting her mind.

But the symbolism and metaphors are not just limited to dialogues. Through figures like a scarecrow from Diana’s old home and Anne Boleyn are quite compelling and soul-stirring at the same time.

In fact, the implementation of Anne is interesting as there is an uncanny similarity in both their lives… Both Diana and Anne married a King or future King and both their marriages went sour, ultimately they both met an untimely death.

Boleyn as an instrumental character is haunting because it acts as a harsh reminder of how women in history have always suffered due to monarchial and patriarchal pressures and suppression.

When it comes to the technical aspects, the background score enhances Spencer‘s atmosphere. The incorporation of gentle jazz music and classical violin music encompasses the lavishness of the royals whilst the latter improves the poignancy of her life.

Combining the aesthetics, Larraín displays his prowess through scenes that showcase Diana’s rapport with her in-laws.

One such scene is where she walks into dinner and receives unpleasant observations from the Queen and Prince Charles. During this clip, it is the formidability of actors – their expressions and body language – which do the talking. A scene which exudes power and distress.

Alas, coming to Kristen Stewart. Undoubtedly she delivers a career-defining performance. Her endeavour of polishing the British accent and adapting Lady Di’s mannerisms seem so sincere and heartfelt. What entices me about the actor is her eyes. There is an unsaid vulnerability yet strength and beauty within her and that is what surprisingly works.

Whether it’s the emotional breakdown, bulimia or motherhood scenes, each frame is solid and Stewart definitely shines. At times, the resemblance with Diana is almost uncanny.

In other performances, Sally Hawkins is also strong as Maggie, the Royal Dresser and Diana’s confidante. Sally’s smile and warmness shine through into her craft as the supportive figure. Even though Kristen is in the titular role, Hawkins also makes a lasting impression.

Whilst Spencer is a stunning piece of cinema, it is unsettling. The slow peace exhibiting psychological turmoils of the princess, makes one feel rattled within.

Given that we’ve all noticed how media intrusion damaged Diana’s life and recently with Meghan Markle, the movie emphasises behind royal or celebrity titles there are human beings who are fighting an emotional war within.

Collectively, the movie rises above being an imaginary biographical extract to addressing rampant topics like Mental Health Awareness.

Particularly, a scene shows Maggie telling Diana, “you don’t need doctors, you need love, shock and laughter” hits the soul. Such lines are a reminder to our society that empathy is key. Compassion is what can cure a broken and bruised soul.

Cinematically, Spencer‘s viewing experience is ethereal, mesmerising and heartbreaking. A soul-stirring winner all the way.

⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 (4.5/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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