No, not me. The director of Jackie and now Spencer: Pablo Larraín

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Nov. 18, 2021

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Is there anything else to know about the 90’s most written-about figure? Thousands of articles, hundreds of books and a plenty of terrible Hallmark movies have had Diana, Princess of Wales, as their subject, even though she wasn’t all that interesting to start with [writer takes cover].

Or was she? The feminist movements of the last few years have reframed the narratives surrounding iconic figures. Spencer puts pen to paper (or tape to camera) by digging deep on a pivotal moment in Diana’s life: when she decided to leave Charles and the Windsors behind.

Set during Christmas break at the Queen’s Sandringham residence (right next to a derelict property once owned by Diana’s family), the unhappy princess (a strong Kristen Stewart) goes from one humiliation to the next, barely able to follow a litany of royal protocols. Pushed to the brink by her unfaithful husband (Jack Farthing) and a persnickety equerry (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner), Diana finds the strength to leave it all behind.

Although the symbolism is heavy-handed to the point of distraction (see: pearls), Spencer does an outstanding job portraying the oppressiveness of Diana’s surroundings, as well as the simmering epiphany that would help her extricate herself from the situation.

Spencer is directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. An auteur who makes quality films in English (Jackie, Lisey’s Story) and Spanish (No, The Club), Larraín is considered particularly adept at digging into the female psyche. Think Almodóvar minus kitsch, thoughtful and serious-minded.

Your ability to create an oppressive environment with limited resources is remarkable. I imagine this was by design.

It was part of the original concept, the one we used to invite Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) to write the script. Diana’s story is tied to a complex social system in which tradition and the weight of history have a massive role. These are institutions loaded with protocols and highly regulated internal and external relationships. Overall, this is a repressive system and a character in the middle of it who wants to free herself is bound to be compelling. But it’s not just Diana in this environment. Everybody in the Royal Family faces the same challenges.

You shot Spencer during the COVID epidemic. What logistical challenges did you have to deal with?

Damned COVID… It made everything slower. We were working with some elderly actors and children, so we had to ensure they were safe. Because we were so rigorous, we didn’t have any cases. Paradoxically, since most of the world was paralyzed, we had access to locations that any other time we wouldn’t be allowed in, like shut-down hotels that used to be palaces. It was also challenging to synchronize British, German and Chilean crew members, but the truth is movies are made almost the same everywhere. It all ends up with the actor in front of the camera.

Casting Sean Harris (a recurring villain in Mission: Impossible) as an ally and Timothy Spall as a villain seems counterintuitive. How did this happen?

Sean Harris tested and was incredible. It happens with actors who specialize in specific types of roles: Sean often plays hardened characters, so when he plays someone more fragile, it’s very beautiful to see. Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins [as Diana’s dresser] are people I’ve admired all my life because of the movies they made with Mike Leigh.

This is your first film scored by Jonny Greenwood. Does he work any differently compared to other composers you’ve collaborated with?

I was a huge fan from Radiohead and later, of his work with Paul Thomas Anderson. He was the one who proposed combining baroque music and jazz. The outcome, I believe, took the movie to uncharted areas. Certain artists are so particular they create work nobody else could come up with. He’s one of them.

While promoting Spencer, Kristen Stewart stated she has only made five really good movies. Which ones are your favorites?

I like the ones she made with Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria and particularly Personal Shopper. I was intrigued by her and when Spencer landed, it all came together.