Skip to main content

They don’t know Anne Boleyn saved my life last night.

Spencer
(2021)

(SPOILERS) I’m sure there’s a very funny edit of Spencer to be made, perhaps involving Reeves and Mortimer appearing at inopportune moments while Kristen Stewart’s Prince Di reels, dazed and confused, around the halls of Sandringham, faithfully accompanied by Johnny Greenwood’s free-jazz snoodlings. The picture’s random and deranged enough as it is, so it would require very little prodding to fracture its deadly-serious face ache and daub across it instead a splash of levity. Or how about Terry Gilliam in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas mode, replacing visions of Liz et al with his animatronic casino reptiles (the referenced perpetually frigid Sandringham interiors underline such potentialities)?

The main ticket here is Stewart, of course, no longer a moonstruck vampire lover but a genuine actress, fashionista and lesbian icon. Yes, she’s blossomed in recent years, even if her embodiment of Diana still carries about it a touch of jaundice. While I see no evidence the greater public agree (witness the box office performances of Charlie’s Angels and Underwater), she undoubtedly heads a fervent fanbase, and she’s about the only nominee for this year acting Oscars (in any category) to muster a glimmer of surprise or trace of the unexpected. As such, despite the movie itself, she’d get my vote right now (I’ve yet to see Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers – I’m sure she’s very good – or Jesscia Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye – I’m sure she’s very prostheticised).

Stewart’s Diana is certainly the most proficient impersonation I’ve seen this side of Rory Bremner. She has the cow-eyed space cadet posing down pat, if occasionally slipping into Richard E Grant when it comes to the delivery. Unfortunately, Pablo Lorrain’s film ups the antic ante from Steven Knight’s already gibbering screenplay, such that you’re left with very little but demented Di going quietly potty as her cold, invasive in-laws look on, disdainful and highly unamused. Spencer very quickly becomes a tiresome overload of the senses, one that sees fit to roam aimlessly for almost two hours. Two hours of Claire Mathon’s handheld camera burrowing up Stewart’s nose, so as to emphasise her intruded-upon, vulnerable state. Had this been directed by peak Jeunet and Caro, the picture might have stumbled into benign eccentricity. But it wasn’t.

Spencer is set over Christmas 1991, with a disorientated Di doing everything she can to avoid spending time with her royals-in-law, as you would if you have any sense. This involves getting lost in the Norfolk countryside, chin wagging with the household’s head chef (Sean Harris), being barracked by the head of staff (Timothy Spall), stealing time with Harry (Freddie Spry) and Wills (Jack Nielsen), confiding in her royal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), visiting the cavernous larder and haunting her childhood home.

She also talks to a pheasant, eats a pearl necklace – with some soup, to make it go down better – indulges her bulimia, steals a coat from a scarecrow, mutilates herself with wire cutters, dances with her younger selves, and converses with the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Some of these are fevered imaginings, such that by the point Maggie confesses love to Di on a windswept beach, I was none too sure if this wasn’t fantasy also. I think the Mike and the Mechanics bit is supposed to be real, but I have no idea why anyone would actually want to listen to that song, less still sing along to it.

One might commend Knight for avoiding the “just-another-biopic” route, but the royal Repulsion course isn’t necessarily a rewarding substitute, particularly given Larrain is so utterly pedestrian in visualising it (Kubrickian corridors here, subjective camera there). Combined with Mathon’s preference for soft light and overly naturalistic visual palette (the picture was shot on film, shockingly), the effect is of a rather irritating daydream.

As such, one might be tempted to sympathise with those attempting to snap the People’s Princess out of it, but Spall’s Alistair Gregory is a clipped, starchy so and so, chiding her for appearing el flagrante at her open window and comparing her to a horse that needs taming. Spall’s distracting drastic weight reduction has left him with a face like a pair of deflated bellows, once generous but now severe. Charles (Jack Farthing), meanwhile, is actively antagonistic and disapproving, instructing her over the divide of a crimson pool table that it is incumbent upon them “to be able to make your body do things you hate”. This, combined with Diana’s “Perhaps they just want to take photos of what’s really going on”, might suggest, if one wishes to look for it, a royal court of malignant unplumbed depths. Harris takes on the biggest challenge of his career, playing a sympathetic character (he isn’t entirely successful). Hawkins is fine, but her character twist is a silly plug for Di being for the people, all people. Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel and Elizabeth Berrington fill out the ranks of royals.

I couldn’t count myself a Di fan – and even less so a royal one – so any fascination with her life, beyond the circumstances of her death (and the conspiracy ne plus ultra one that she’s still alive), escapes me. I’m also no great advocate for biopics – I’ve seen neither Larrain’s last, Jackie, nor Kristen’s Seberg – but occasionally a fresh approach rises above the chafe. With Knight’s features record of late, there was hardly much chance. His tone-poem take is hardly standard for him, but neither was the attempt (and ultimate failure) to stretch himself with Serenity.

Spencer is prefaced with the nonsensical “A fable from a true tragedy”, but it admittedly sets the table for the indulgence that follows. Stewart’s painstakingly peculiar loony tune turn is noteworthy, but Larrain does his best to smother her in the pea soup of third-rate phantasms. Notable, nevertheless, for establishing that KFC is superior to the slop served up by the royal kitchens. Is freedom from the shackles of establishment patronage a KFC or a big nothing burger? Like Larrain’s movie.


Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi