Thursday, October 7th, 2021

Queerguru’s Andrew Hebden reviews SPENCER ‘a fable from a true tragedy’ at London Film Festival

It’s 7.30 am and a line stretching three blocks is already forming for Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain, one of the movies with buzz at this year’s London Film Festival. Starring Kristen Stewart it is a “fable from a true tragedy” that captures the life of Princess Diana over a three-day period. Just as it portrays Diana teetering on the edge of sanity between lucidity and lunacy the movie teeters on the edge of excellence between brittle brilliance and mawkish whimsy.

Diana arrives defiantly late to Sandringham to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day with the Royal Family. The suffocating traditions, which includes a weigh-in of each guest, cast a surreal light on the behavior of a vast household of family and servants who are all invested, in their own way, in maintaining a regal spell that holds every person and thing in its proper place. As Diana comments, there are no tenses when talking about the Royal Household. There is no separate past, present, and future. There is only a sense of the past in the present. 

In the three-day period, all the tabloid gossip about Diana is presented. Her eating disorder, her self-harm, the whispers about affairs, and the estrangement from her husband. A cleverly fluid script weaves them in as a single narrative where each part explains the others. Kristen Stewart, in one of her best roles, captures the mannered actressy elements of Diana’s character without irritating mimicry.  

A ponderous and stiltedly classical soundtrack creates an off-kilter foreboding. Larrain repeatedly taunts the audience by throwing in tragically painful moments that then turn out to be mere hallucinatory slips. In one scene Diana is choking on pearls from a necklace that Charles has given as a gift to both her and Camilla. In the next scene, the pearls are back round her neck and it turns out that the choking was a bulimic episode. The hallucinations occur in the blink of an eye so that sight is never lost of the idea that Diana is not insane, she is in an insane situation. Repeated comparisons are drawn with Anne Boleyn who was beheaded for an affair by her husband King Henry VIII, to facilitate his own adultery. 

For followers of Diana, the film presents her in a collage of the classic over-photographed outfits that are now iconic. The wedding dress, the nautical hats, the buttoned jackets with the shoulder pads that emphasized her head tilts under the layered fringe. She is the New Romantic royal. In combination with the head-on tackling of the tabloid stories, there is an almost documentary completeness to the portrayal despite it being distilled fiction.

Larrain avoids soap opera by retaining a manic tension at the heart of the film. Triggers are deftly and definitely pulled. A fun escapist ending is presented but in the most improbable way so that all it does is remind the audience of what they knew all along, that there was no happily ever after for this princess.



Queerguru Contributing Editor ANDREW HEBDEN is a MEDIA & CULTURAL STUDIES graduate spending his career between London, Beijing, and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement, he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre, and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.

Posted by queerguru  at  10:00


Genres:  biopic, drama

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