Spencer

Spencer ★★★½

Despite both films being about iconic and influential women in the public eye whose lives were tainted by tragedy, Spencer is not as successful as Pablo Larraín's breakthrough English language feature, Jackie and I'm struggling to put my finger on why.

The easiest answer I can come up with is that the marriage between Larraín's auteur direction and the conventional nature of the biopic - however loose that may be here - is an uneasy one. But then that doesn't explain how Jackie succeeded where this does not. After all, surely we're just as familiar with films based on the lives of the Kennedys as we are on those of the parasitical Windsor clan? Perhaps the issue then is either that dramas depicting the tangled lives of the royal family are more in vogue these days - see Netflix's The Crown - or that, because I'm actually British, I can see the flaws a little more clearly.

Either way, Spencer is at its best when it affords Larraín the freedom to go a bit wild, and at it's least enjoyable when Steven Knight's screenplay adheres to the traditions of what audiences have come to expect from a royal biopic. When Larraín immerses himself and his audience into the woozily off-kilter, anxiety-inducing and peculiar tradition-bound world of a cloistered up, repressed Christmas with the inbred in-laws, Spencer feels more like Rosemary's Baby than it does The Crown, with Kristen Stewart's Diana building up just as much sympathy and concern from the audience as Mia Farrow once did. It's in those moments that Pablo Larraín returns to the genre of psychological horror, reminiscent of the disconcerting work he produced in his native Chile with films like Post Mortem, Tony Manero and The Club, and the uncomfortable nature of the piece is heightened by Jonny Greenwood's indefinable score. It bears repeating that a different director, one who is less of an auteur and is British or even American, would have made a conventional biopic from Knight's only marginally unconventional screenplay.

Because I'm the sort of person who wouldn't touch a Twilight film with a bargepole, Kristen Stewart is a performer I only really know from a handful of films, including another recent biopic of a beautiful young woman whose voice led to her death in France, the terribly disappointing and offensive Seberg, but I have to say that this is the best performance I have seen from her thus far. It could be argued that what she's doing with her body language and her accent is an impression, but whilst these characteristics are very accurate, there's more than enough of the actress in here to be an original performance rather than a cheap take-off. Whilst Spencer undeniably belongs to Stewart, the film boasts some fine support from Jack Farthing as Charles, Sean Harris in a rare sympathetic role, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall and, in a more fleeting, minor role than many might expect or imagine, Stella Gonet as the Queen.

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