Sunday, December 19, 2021

"Spencer": review

[This movie is rooted in actual history, so you know how the story ends, but for what it's worth, the movie's end isn't spoiled here, and most of the rest of the plot is left unrevealed.]

In the movie "A Fish Called Wanda," John Cleese plays Archie Leach, a henpecked barrister who falls for the charms of Wanda Gershwitz, an American thief played by Jamie Lee Curtis. At one point, Archie bemoans the stiffness of British society, confessing to Wanda that he and his wife "invite piles of corpses to dinner." Otto West, played by Kevin Kline, is an ex-CIA agent who hates the Brits, and there's a moment where he rants about "a lot of snotty, stuck-up, intellectually inferior British faggots... Jesus, they're uptight! They get rigor mortis in the prime of life in this country! Standing there with their hair clenched, counting the seconds to the weekend so they can all dress up like ballerinas and whip themselves into a frenzy..." It's a hilarious jab at the English way, and while the satirical criticism by no means describes all Brits, it does describe, sadly, a certain sector of them.

2021's "Spencer," directed by Pablo Larraín, takes us on a hellish ride into that sector. As the title implies, the film focuses on the life of young, magnetic, ill-fated Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart, marvelous), dealing in particular with three days from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, i.e., the day right after Christmas. While I don't believe the story specifies the year (an opening title card calls the film "a fable from a true tragedy," giving the proceedings a feeling of timelessness), the story makes it obvious that this is the point in Diana's marriage where she is losing her grip on sanity and coldly distant from her tone-deaf husband Charles. Diana and Charles are still married, but Charles is already having an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, who briefly makes an appearance in the film. (In real life, Charles and Diana separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996.)

The opening shots of "Spencer" are generally static and wide. A line of trucks comes toward the Queen's Sandringham estate, passing a pheasant carcass along the way. Soldiers disembark while carrying large boxes that could contain anything from heavy weaponry to cadavers. As it turns out, the boxes contain food, and we come to understand this is all part of a larger ritual performed whenever Her Majesty is in residence. Food prep occurs in the lower parts of the estate, and the cook staff is constantly reminded to keep the noise down so as not to disturb residents. A sign saying "They Can Hear You!" is prominently displayed.

When we first meet Diana, she is driving alone and has somehow gotten lost in the beautiful English countryside. All she has is a simple paper map, which she doesn't seem to know how to read. This takes place long before the days of Google, cell phones, and what the Brits call "satnav" (we Yanks say "GPS"), so Diana tries talking to locals, most of whom can do no more than gawk mutely at her in awe. A royal! Among us!

Much of the movie's plot is like this, painting a picture of a young woman who has lost her independence, who breaks free of routine on occasion to taste a bit of freedom, who is held at a distance by locals who simultaneously idolize her and are morbidly fascinated by her train-wreck personal life, who is slowly going insane because she is a trapped animal buried under a mountain of ritual propriety, self-seriousness, pretentiousness, and relentless grandeur.

Keep in mind, too, that while Diana is increasingly worried for her own health and sanity, she is also a mother with two children whom she wants desperately to protect from the interminable crush of pomp, ceremony, and scrutiny. At this point in the story, her boys are but wee lads yet to take on their respective good-boy and bad-boy reputations, still susceptible to Christmas games and surprises, stories and laughter. "Spencer" is interesting in that it presents us these two dimensions at the same time: youthful innocence as yet uncorrupted by its toxic surroundings, and the soul-sucking gravitational pull of the structured adult world of a royal. And there stands Diana in the middle, being driven insane by the contrast between her own quietly rebellious nature and her calcified surroundings.

Although the walls seem to be closing in, Diana does have friends. Two in particular: her Royal Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins—and yes, as a royal, Diana could not even dress herself), and the Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris, but more on him later). Maggie provides at least a little of the girly company that Diana craves; McGrady, older, is gruff but also kind as he explains the inner workings of palace life from his perspective. To some extent, both Maggie and McGrady pity Diana, understanding her spiritual claustrophobia.

The movie deals with Diana's bulimia (several hug-the-toilet moments), but it also adds a weird layer of fantasy as she is visited by the specter of Anne Boleyn, 1500s queen of England and second wife of Henry VIII, beheaded by him after being spuriously accused of adultery when he, in fact, had been the adulterer. In some of Diana's visions, Boleyn talks to her; in others, Diana becomes Boleyn, merging as Diana embraces what she sees as the deep parallels between their two lives.

It might be good at this point to talk a bit about what "Spencer" does well and what it does poorly. On the good side, the acting is spot-on. I admit I felt grim triumph to see an American usurp the most British of British roles. I'm frankly tired of all the role-thievery by the Brits when it comes to American superheroes: Batman is played by a Welshman; Superman, Dr. Strange, and Spider-Man are all played by Englishmen. What, the Yanks didn't have any equivalent talent available when these iconic roles were being cast? So score one for Kristen, then, who reeled in a big British fish when she got the role of Diana. And she nails the accent! Maybe a Brit would say differently, but that would probably be because he already knows Kristen Stewart is a Yank. The movie's cinematography is both beautiful and sad, evoking the majesty of royal property, the heaviness of history, and the quiet beauty of English landscapes. As a period piece, the costumes are all on point (to my untrained eye, anyway). The movie's editing keeps the story moving forward in a slow, relentless way that begins to feel stifling after a while. This is a good artistic choice, I think, contrasting openness and confinement while maintaining a subtext of inevitability. Everything contributes to the sense that Diana essentially lives her life inside a trash compactor that promises to squeeze her into conformity with ritual and tradition.

Where "Spencer" drops the ball, though, is in how it handles things like symbol and metaphor. A recurring image of dead pheasants is one example of this. The film opens, as mentioned, with trucks rolling by a pheasant carcass, so the symbol-sensitive immediately know this represents Diana: beautiful, wild, ignored, marginalized, and soon to be dead. Unfortunately, pheasants both dead and alive turn up four or five times throughout the plot, hammering this point home. Once would have been enough. Anne Boleyn, mentioned above, is just as bad: the director doesn't even hide the whole "Diana is Anne!" angle, so nothing is left for the audience to interpret or to figure out. A pearl choker necklace, symbolizing beauty paired with restrictive confinement (like a leash! and it's a choker—get it?) is ripped off not once but twice in two separate incidents (once in a fantasy involving green soup, and once arguably in reality). The music, by composer Jonny Greenwood, is a weird combination of twisted classical-ish strings and film-noir jazz meant to say something about the conflict in Diana's soul or her increasingly frazzled mental state. The heavy-handedness of this aspect of "Spencer" was a true turn-off for me. Thank goodness the other elements of the movie saved it from being complete mush.

And on that score, let's talk a bit more about the actors, including one or two not mentioned up to now. First, we focus again on Kristen Stewart, who is already receiving Oscar buzz for her performance, including from a bevy of kind-hearted British reviewers. (On YouTube, British reviewer Mark Kermode was positively gushing.) I should note, too, that I have never been one of the Kristen Stewart haters. I first saw her years ago in a strange movie called "In the Land of Women" and found her performance enchanting. Stewart gets flak for seeming "wooden," as many haters say, but I think her natural reserve lets through a whole spectrum of half-hidden emotions, and in a movie like "Spencer," which is about restraint in all its different forms, this works to Stewart's advantage. She is well cast for this role, and it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. (I never saw the Naomi Watts biopic "Diana," but I've heard complaints that it's way too sensationalized.)

At this point, everyone expects nothing but good performances from Sally Hawkins, but while it's easy to take her for granted, I can say she lends a humanity to her role as Maggie, one of the few people sympathetic to Diana's predicament. The real surprise for me was Sean Harris as Royal Head Chef Darren McGrady. You may recall I had some not-so-nice things to say about Harris's looks in my review of "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation." I said the man looks singularly unpleasant, and to this day, I'd say his looks and on-screen demeanor made him a perfect choice for the role of the bad guy. The man just appears evil. And yet, here he is in "Spencer," playing a completely opposite role as a man who feels great compassion for Diana, and who tries his best, within constraints, to do what he can to ease her time among the "pile of corpses." There's a scene in which McGrady gives a speech about the nature of life under the queen. In this speech, he tries gently to illustrate the harsh reality of what such a life entails, and the subtle force of the speech is such that we, the viewers, are left to wonder how Diana could ever have said yes to such a life. It's a marvelous turn for Sean Harris as an actor, and for me, it's one of the most memorable parts of the movie, despite being brief. I should also mention Timothy Spall as Major Gregory, a man who seems to have been tasked with keeping Diana on a leash and making sure she doesn't wander far, as she did at the beginning of the film. Diana's relationship with Major Gregory is prickly, at best, but there's a weird dimension there that adds another angle to the story.

I admit being a bit worried, given how the movie began, that I was going to be subjected to something like a glacially paced Merchant-Ivory film similar in spirit to "The Remains of the Day" (a.k.a. All Repression All the Time). My fears were baseless. While "Spencer" doesn't move at an action movie's clip, it is an intensely internal drama inhabited by some truly good performances. The movie's bias is worn on its shoulder, with Diana portrayed as a withering flower and the royal family as a borderline-evil omnipresence, constantly worried about the intrusive press and ritual propriety, but rarely concerned about the true health and well-being of its charges. This didn't feel like the kind of movie one eagerly rewatches right after seeing it the first time, but despite its flaws, it provoked certain deep thoughts and feelings.


ADDENDUM: remember Eddie Izzard's hilarious take on UK versus US movies?

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