TIFF 2021 | Spencer (Pablo Larraín, UK/Germany)

By Jay Kuehner

Come for the Di, but stay for the Pablo. Having followed the moves of the Chilean autor far more than that of any royal family member, I thought the strategy was sound enough to suffer the eternal hors d’oeuvre of crustless sandwiches and acrid tea that is monarchy-watching. If Larraín, in Tony Manero, could allegorically deprecate the Pinochet legacy in absentia by way of a sordid nightclub act that channels Saturday Night Fever on the outskirts of Santiago, then imagine what he might make of the sumptuously oppressive decorum that restrained, if not strangled, the beloved former Princess of Wales. Shackles of pearls, as it were.

But the point, post-Jackie (and implicit in the film’s title), would appear to be restoring Diana (Kristen Stewart) to some semblance of her former self, in spirit if not in name. Larraínluxuriates in the perversity of humanizing, and possibly dignifying, Diana through her less flattering transgressions—most notably when she is seen splayed in the lavatory, purging herself of the holiday banquet’s more sumptuous culinary offerings (organic provisions of which have been dispatched by military convoy in the prologue’s extended sight gag). The gesture seems nearly heroic given the compulsory bloating to which she is routinely subjected, exacerbated by the humiliation she incurs from her inherited family, assigned wardrobe consultants, and a most dour security detail. The curtains must remain closed, insist her handlers, which Larraínintimates is like a skin pulled too taut and therefore in need of a piercing release.

Or maybe, come for the Pablo, but stay for the Stewart. Her mannered, incessantly whispered performance channels sympathetic charm and tortured soul in equal measure, an elaborate unwrapping all but ensured by Boxing Day. Despite the excess, there’s something of Mabel Longhetti’s suffocating conundrum evoked here: going crazy may be the only way of staying sane. Both women are doing it for the kids, which is its own kind of secular royalty. Being lost may be the best thing that happens to Diana in the film’s selectively terse purview (intended to imply an entire reign still). But having the Princess naively detour to a mute fish n’ chips hall in her convertible sports car early on tips Larraín’s hand too heavily. He too got the keys to the kingdom, but could only make his irreverence count so much. Ultimately, Spencer is less a half-cooked pheasant than one left uneaten and destined to be discarded.