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FILM REVIEW: Palace intrigue never gets old: ‘Spencer’ is both haunted and haunting

The loneliness of Princess Diana depicted in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” is writ so large, it’s practically 3D. The torment of a loveless marriage, the affliction of bulimia, and the misery of self-injurious tendencies are all difficult to watch, but you’ll be glad you did.

Pandemic lockdown and social distancing have primed us to experience isolation more acutely now. Even so, the loneliness depicted in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” is writ so large, it’s practically 3D. The torment of a loveless marriage, the affliction of bulimia, and the misery of self-injurious tendencies are all difficult to watch. Regardless, you’ll be glad you did.

All the palace intrigue in “Spencer” unfolds during 1991’s Christmas holiday at Sandringham House, a sprawling retreat used by England’s Royal Family. Before joining them for three days of family time, Princess Diana utters several unmistakable f-bombs. This makes sense, given the rolling fog she has to navigate solo on unmarked roads to get there. And holidays can be stressful for anyone.

One thing is clear, though: Diana lost not only her name, but her whole self when she married into what Meghan Markle calls “The Firm.” Of course, the movie’s events are imagined, set to Jonny Greenwood’s lovely original score.

For sovereign interests set on 20,000 acres with 775 rooms, Sandringham exudes an odd claustrophobia reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Midway through “Spencer,” you may develop what I can only describe as sartorial exhaustion and pheasant hunt fever. Thus, the Princess drolly tells her attendant to let the in-laws know she’ll be late to dinner because she’s going to masturbate. “OK, Your Highness.”

Kristen Stewart in “Spencer.” Photo courtesy the film’s director, Pablo Lorrain / Neon

“Spencer” will garner Kristen Stewart worldwide accolades and quite possibly an Academy Award for Best Actress. In a supporting role, Sally Hawkins also shines — not so much for what’s known as “big dyke energy,” but for a more sapphic schoolmarm charm. The two thespians sharing great chemistry despite their respective straitjackets: frozen-out women still burning bright.

On the other hand, all families have ghosts: the self-exiled sister, the deceased dad, the baby born still. Whatever role they once played, we cannot ignore the stealth chemistry our own ghosts exact from the here and now. Illusions all, they remain central characters whose misfortunes we may yet avoid.

Haunting Diana throughout “Spencer” is none other than 16th century martyr Anne Boleyn, once the Queen of England. You don’t have to be a monarchist or a papist to see family drama pass from one generation to the next. Here’s the thing, though: family drama hangs over everyone’s head. You are best to let it go already, even if Diana could not.

One of my favorite scenes from Diana’s life actually pops up in 2019’s “Pavarotti.” In front of 125,000 soggy fans, the tenor dedicates Puccini’s second aria from “Turandot” to Lady Diana. This, after her umbrella-lowering gesture so the whole crowd could see the stage. The domino effect of her example led to a beautiful serenade for all to enjoy. Flanked by Prince Charles and Prime Minister John Major, Diana beamed back at Pavarotti and batted her eyelashes. A more intimate moment in public is hard to recall.

Kristen Stewart and Sally Hawkins in “Spencer.” Photo: NEON / YouTube

In any case, that was then and this is Oscar season. Palace intrigue never dies, it simply goes into overdrive when a member of its family departs. So much protocol, so much spectacle. As Diana explains to her young sons, “While here in this house, there is no future. The past and present are the same thing.”

And let’s be honest: after 50 years of wearing the crown, Her Majesty the Queen has more than fulfilled her duties, but her death will still send shockwaves around the world.

When Diana was killed in Paris on August 31, 1997, my mother gently woke me to break the news. I’m still recovering. If you’re like me, “Spencer” is a critical step forward on this journey. The fact is, Diana reigns supreme in so many beating hearts, and “Spencer” simply acknowledges our ongoing love affair with the people’s princess.

“Spencer” is playing at The Moviehouse in Millerton, New York; will begin screening at The Triplex in Great Barrington on Friday; and comes to Images Cinema in Williamstown December 10–16.


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