Tuesday 9 November 2021

Uneasy lies the head: "Spencer"

I went into
Spencer with great trepidation. If its director, Chile's Pablo Larraín, counts among the most exciting filmmakers working anywhere in the world today, his English-language assignments (the mixed bag of 2016's Jackie, on which he was a late hire; the disastrous Stephen King adaptation Lisey's Story, for Apple TV+) have proven far less satisfying than the material he's developed for himself, in his own idiom. And just on an emotional level, this particular story would seem to demand some form of engagement with that strata of moneyed weirdoes who've conspired to leave the UK the cowed and backward-looking nation it currently is. Beyond that, the film's earliest observers, whether pro or anti, were united in their observation that Spencer is an odd one in itself. It's certainly that. Anyone drawn here by the bingeable sheen of TV's Downton or The Crown is in for a big surprise; I imagine the execs at STX Films took a very sharp intake of breath upon seeing what they'd signed on to distribute. It's odd because it's the work of three forceful creatives who don't tesselate or cancel one another out, but instead keep stepping on one another's toes. For the screenwriter Steven Knight (Locke), this is another self-contained character study of an individual navigating a moment of crisis: in this most illustrious of cases, Diana, Princess of Wales, tracked over one Christmas as she realises her fairytale marriage has become a dead end. For Larraín, it's a prime opportunity to further subvert our expectations of the costume drama, while dabbling in Gothic horror and comedy. For the still broadly underappreciated star Kristen Stewart, it's a shot at the Oscar by playing an unhappy and ultimately doomed public figure. Yet far from the stodgy awards bait I was dreading, Spencer shapes up as a real kittens-in-a-sack movie, eternally unable to resolve its own internal tensions. Any commentary this vaguely bemused viewer can provide can only be provisional; what it really cries out for is a half-hour CNN special in which Harry and Wills Siskel-and-Ebert the shit out of it.

What Spencer gets right, I think, is how this family contrive to make an irksome fuss out of everything. The tragedy of the House of Windsor is that its individual constituents could easily live small, simple lives in nice, normal houses - but they don't or won't, and so just getting from A to B becomes a right royal chore. That's the thrust of the film's opening argument, which takes what should be a brisk introductory sequence (Diana's arrival at Sandringham on Christmas Eve) and diverts it via dead grouses (an augury of things to come), a greasy spoon ("it's Diana!"), impromptu search parties, and a scarecrow who instantly appears better off out of it. When our heroine finally shows up at the appointed destination, late, the doors are shut, and there's no sign of the welcome party that had been on screen five minutes earlier for Her Maj. Lunch will drag on roughly as long as the Civil War, and involve pearls in the pea soup (a great, textured movie image, of the kind Larraín specialises in); Diana can't even get dressed for it without someone barging into her quarters and starting an argument of some kind. (Sometimes, this is the ghost of Anne Boleyn. It's that kind of film.) We've all known rather testy and fractious Christmases, in real life and the movies - Stewart skipped through one in last year's Happiest Season - but this one's on another level entirely, like The Family Stone extended into a greater ordeal yet. As Jonny Greenwood's score, an unholy hybrid of classical and jazz, parps and lurches around each frame, what would in the heyday of the royals be referred to, with all due deference, as pomp and circumstance gets coolly reassessed and recategorised as just the most agonising faff. The Princess maintains relatively normal relations with her sons; to the last, Knight subscribes to the commonly held belief that Diana was a Great Mum. Yet her encounters with the Sandringham staff (Timothy Spall's head butler, Sean Harris's chef, Sally Hawkins' besotted dresser) are governed by a formal awkwardness that is partly that of the characters, and partly that of the film, the result of three different creative drives operating more or less in parallel.

The film never banishes the question marks lingering after these creatives' names; it's one reason why it finally presents as such a question mark itself. (Why this? Again? Why like this?) Stewart, at least, bears up to the dual scrutiny of having to play someone who's all but been canonised as a latter-day saint, and to do so with Larraín's camera probing her nostrils for much of it. She has the right look, and gets the breathy phrasing - that of someone instructed to speak like a princess - just so; it's also fun to watch the dark lines under the actress's eyes come back into play as this Diana stalks the Sandringham estate after lights-out. Still, as with Natalie Portman in Jackie, this is a real curate's egg of a performance: it doesn't help that Stewart never seems old enough to have had kids in the first place. For a good while, she looks like someone who's been shoehorned into a series of outfits and photo ops, rather than an actress inhabiting a role from the inside out. (I guess you could argue Diana herself had the same issues.) After Lisey's Story, with its terminal heavyhandedness, Larraín is busy refining - read: lightening up - his signature expressionism. Somewhere in Knight's script is the idea the royals are, in effect, a benevolent, cosily controlling dictatorship, reliant upon a small army of footmen, domestic staff and actual soldiers knowing their place within households such as these. (A prop that leaps off the screen at you: the sign in the Sandringham kitchens that reads "Keep Your Noise Down - They Can Hear You".) Larraín clocks that - it's why he shows Diana showering in what looks to be a cage, and the curtains in her bedroom being sewn together - but having grown up under an actual dictatorship, he apparently feels free to strike a goofier, more satiric tone: for him, all this is just a very silly way for anyone to have to live their life.

As a result, stretches of Spencer feel tonally closer to the C4 sitcom The Windsors, which has logged several seasons exploring just how silly these people and their frills are, than it does to, say, Stephen Frears' The Queen. Diana waves away her dresser with an exhausted "I want to masturbate". At one point, she ends up talking to a grouse. There is the following exchange: "Do you have access to wirecutters?" "Why do you want wirecutters?" "To cut wire." You chuckle, without really being clued in as to why we're being encouraged to chuckle, and that's the film's major limitation, why it might only function at the level of camp. For whatever reason - whether the threat of the Tower or out of a desire to pull in the royalist crowd (a not inconsiderable demographic, as the tabloid front pages continually demonstrate) - Spencer can't fully admit to its own silliness. It's a film trying to maintain a straight face after farting in chapel; any tears it might wring would be those of someone struggling to suppress a giggle. That rude energy still leaves it preferable to the laughably bland stodge of 2013's Diana, and there might yet be something useful in the project's core weirdness: essentially, Knight and Larraín have restored those critical notes that were purged from the post-Downton heritage drama for easier export, the better to demonstrate that what the media traditionally invites us to view as a lavish ongoing fairytale is actually a most unnatural, more often than not unhealthy situation. Divine right of kings, after all, only leads us to Prince Andrew. It's a three-star movie that probably doesn't deserve to be stuck with that rating, because that would suggest that Spencer is somehow run-of-the-mill. It's really not that, and it's worth seeing for that reason alone - but then you may never have seen a film that comes this close to working brilliantly and which, at the same time, comes this close to failing spectacularly.

Spencer is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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