Pablo Larraín’s latest has him revisiting similar themes for yet another masterpiece
Pablo Larraín’s Spencer hit home video last week and was familiar territory for the director who tackled a similar subject and themes with his 2016 masterpiece Jackie. That film followed another iconic woman married to a leader, “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis and took place during the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. That film was also an intimate portrait of a woman in crisis, this time against the backdrop of the fall of Camelot and a world in turmoil after the loss of a leader. The odd thing is, that film failed to get the foothold that Spencer has award-wise, and that is quite possibly thanks to the aid of shows like The Crown and or it could be how Jackie went into some pretty dark places veering into not only the graphic aftermath of the assassination, but the emotional, and historical as well.
Billed as a “A fable from a true tragedy”, the surreal narrative transpires over three days in 1991, beginning on Christmas Eve at the Sandringham, one of the royal family’s country estates. The film follows Diana, Princess of Wales played here by Kristen Stewart, who arrives at the holiday celebration at the tipping point in her 11 year marriage with Prince Charles. This is not only due to the pressures of the public eye, that would eventually be the literal death of the princess; but her husband’s rather public infidelity. The Diana we meet is struggling emotionally, psychologically and physically, all while being forced to deal with the family politics and the tedious rituals the royals are tasked with over the holiday.
The proverbial straw, inciting of her descent into madness is when she finds a book about Anne Boleyn left in her room. The Spencers were not only related to the Boleyns, but both women share quite a few parallels: unfaithful husbands, overwhelmed by royal expectations and they fought against the royal establishment. Diana then begins to see the ghost of Boleyn (also played by Stewart), amongst her other metaphorical hallucinations on this surreal journey of awakening that allows her to finally decide to leave not only Sandringham, but Prince Charles a year later. The film is a snapshot of a woman who is at the end of her rope and who at the end ultimately hopes for a miracle.
The most impressive thing here is Stewart who delivers more of an embodiment, than a performance. There are no rough edges to be had as she inhabits Larraín’s take on Diana. Even compared to her work in Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, Spencer is a new level of maturity for her work and something that truly demonstrates just how it’s not the actor in some of these films that’s the issue, but the directors who fail to push or inspire them. Stewart’s scenes with Diana’s children and Major Alistair Gregory, allow her to refocus from the more extreme and turn in some truly intimate moments that fill the character with a sense of vulnerability and authenticity.
This is all seen through the dreamlike cinematography of Claire Mathon, who also lensed Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Shot on Super 16, the film presented here on the blu-ray has the film look you’d expect and a lush color palette that only intensifies the surrealness of the film’s layered realities allowing them to co-exist on the same theatrical plane. This combined with Jonny Greenwood’s (Radiohead) chilling score that goes from free jazz to eerie guitars completes this presentation. I also have to note the soundstage here as the sound mix impressively utilized in the film further luring the audience under the film’s spell and even supplying a jump scare or two.
Spencer is nothing short of a masterpiece, and an amazing achievement for Pablo Larraín. This is thanks not only to his direction, but Stewart’s career defining performance that has been steadily gaining momentum this awards season. Her embodiment of Diana is what gives this film its heart and soul and transcends it from a simple biopic into something much more, delving into the very subconscious of our protagonist in a way that is rarely seen on film. Spencer was easily one of my favorite films of the year and revelation as far as Stewart’s progression as an actor.
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