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Middleburg Film Festival Review: All Style and No Substance, “Spencer” Ruins Its Subject with Cinematic Excess

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 27th, 2021

Film poster: “Spencer”

Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021) 1 out of 4 stars.

Pablo Larraín has done it again, and not in a good way. With Jackie, his 2016 meditation on the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the days following her first husband’s assassination, the Chilean director of the excellent No fell afoul of his penchant for overbearing sound and visuals to deliver a portrait both grating and simplistic. Yes, there were some pretty pictures to look at, and a heartfelt performance from actress Natalie Portman, but nothing particularly insightful at the center. Now comes Spencer, his take on the moment when Lady Diana (maiden name Spencer), wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, decided to take action (of a sort) in her unhappy marriage. It is equally as reductive of its subject, and similarly irritating. Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper) may act up a storm in the lead, but she can’t overcome the barrage of cinematic mayhem that reduces this movie to all (over-the-top) style and no substance. 

“A fable from a true tragedy.” So labels Larraín his tale at the start, or at least screenwriter Steven Knight (Serenity) does. Warning bells should go off with that self-important assessment, though what initially ensues proves captivating enough. We meet Diana, lost, on her way to Christmas celebrations with her in-laws of the House of Windsor. For whatever reason, she is alone, and when she finally runs across someone who could help—the royal family’s lead chef, Darren (Sean Harris, The Green Knight)—she is in no hurry to rejoin her husband, his parents, or even her own children. She is in crisis, almost unable to think straight, and who could blame her? Charles (Jack Farthing, Love Wedding Repeat) is not only a cold fish, but he makes no secret of the affair he has been carrying on with lover Camila Parker Bowles since before his marriage to Diana. As the latter disintegrates under the pressure of keeping up appearances, the Queen (Stella Gonet, FX’s Breeders) and Prince Philip (Richard Sammel, The Confessions), along with their entourage, look upon with stern disapproval. So far, so gripping.

l-r: Kristen Stewart and Sally Hawkins in SPENCER ©Neon

And then we enter poor-little-rich-girl territory. I do not mean to make light of the sufferings of Ms. Spencer, who died in 1997 in a horrible car accident, but as presented here, they do not prove as affecting as they should. Add the intrusive music layered over far too many scenes and it’s virtually impossible to find something relatable in Diana’s dilemma. Unlike those she ostensibly hates—she’s far worse, in fact—Diana treats the servants as her personal therapists, barging into their spaces uninvited, unconscious of how much of a disruption she is. True, she claims she wants none of the attention, but then demands all of it. Pity the poor chambermaid, Maggie (Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water), who must be all things to Diana at all times: dresser, confidante and cheerleader (though she claims she would do it again and then some). And though the special steward hired to manage Diana’s moods (as the Windsors see them), a certain Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall, Mrs Lowry & Son), is not all that nice to his charge, on some level, given how Larraín contextualizes events, it’s hard to blame him.

Netflix’s Season 4 of The Crown has shown how one can present the life of the rich and pampered with elegant empathy. That doesn’t happen in Spencer, which traffics, instead, in caricature. We keep hearing, from servants Darren and Maggie, how much “the people” love Diana, but why do they? Certainly, Stewart does a marvelous job portraying wounded fragility with a kernel of some kind of strength somewhere beneath the surface, but she is ill-served by the script. Tossing and turning and emoting while strings screech on the soundtrack, she simultaneously engages and repels. And when we finally pivot to some kind of happy moment between her and her sons William and Harry, Larraín ruins that, too, with an otherwise pleasant tune by Mike + the Mechanics used in lieu of actual character development. Sigh. What a waste of talent; everyone deserves better.

Kristen Stewart in SPENCER ©Neon
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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