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Spencer (2021)

Fans of so-bad-it’s-good cinema will have a royal field day with “Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s zany new drama – which should have been called “The Madness of Princess Diana,” as it reimagines the late Princess of Wales as an unbalanced, melodrama-prone woman fighting for control of her sanity.

Set at Sandringham Palace in 1991 over the Christmas holidays, the film finds Diana dealing with the collapse of her marriage to Prince Charles amid a royal setting where she is viewed with varying degrees of hostility.

Diana’s behavior at the start of the film is erratic – she arrives late, claiming to have been lost driving to the palace even though she grew up in the area. Outside of her two young sons, she has virtually no interaction with any member of the royal family – her husband only finds fault with her while her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, is clearly indifferent during the briefest of conversations. Her husband’s mistress, who is not identified by name in the film, shows up at a church service attended by the royal family – and the aristocratic clan becomes angry when Diana, wearing an outfit that was not chosen for her by the royal courtiers, is clearly shown to be the favorite of the news photographers and the average Britons watching them emerge from church.

Her only allies in this environment are a dresser who is abruptly sent away and the palace’s head chef, an odd confidant considering she is constantly vomiting up his creations due to her bulimia. Strangely, this Diana doesn’t have a cell phone to call anyone outside of the palace, though perhaps that touch of reality would puncture the weird fantasy being spun.

Larraín creates new neuroses to bedevil the princess including encounters with the ghost of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife who was beheaded when she fell out of favor with her monarch mate. Larraín also punctuates the film and Diana is given to spells of hallucinatory visions of her past, including a montage of Diana running in terror while wearing various designer outfits, including her celebrated wedding gown.

In the film’s most bizarre sequence, Diana leaves a Christmas dinner dressed in a frilly gown, slices away at the barbed wire around the palace with wire cutters and wanders through the dark ruins of her now-derelict childhood home while Anne Boleyn’s ghost berates her in the creepy hallways.

Larraín’s production is prefixed as “A fable from a true tragedy” – a daring idea that explains why the filmmaker took significant liberties with a well-known story about a greatly-loved woman. The big problem with “Spencer” is Larraín’s decision to externalize Diana’s anguish in a scenery-chewing performance from Kristen Stewart as the princess. Despite her blonde Diana-style hairstyle and early 90s wardrobe, Stewart’s performance is a mess of eye rolling, jaw clenching, hand flutters and dialogue screamed in varying decibels. She’s no one’s idea of Diana, but she does a splendid imitation of Rosalind Russell’s wildly overcooked Lavinia in the 1947 “Mourning Becomes Electra.”

Even if Larraín had been able to moderate Stewart’s hammy eruptions, he bludgeons the audience with ridiculous symbolism – most notoriously with a clunky pearl necklace that Diana is forced to wear while knowing his mistress received the same gift. In one inane fantasy sequence, Diana imagines breaking the necklace into her soup and then consuming each pearl via a spoonful of soup, loudly crunching each pearl like it was a stale crouton while a music score that sounds like a bad imitation of John Cage’s avant-garde excesses pollutes the soundtrack.

Perhaps the most absurd aspect of “Spencer” comes in its climax (spoiler alert), when Diana supposedly finds her spirit to push back at the repressive royals by disrupting a pheasant hunting session arranged by Charles for their sons – she walks among the pheasants, demanding that her sons stop shooting. Charles reluctantly agrees and she spirits the boys out of Sandringham and down to London, where they dine on KFC takeout on a bench along the Thames.

In reality, Diana’s sons have been active pheasant hunters long after her death, much to the displeasure of British animal rights activists – and Diana was not a KFC fan, but actually enjoyed McDonald’s, though perhaps KFC paid more for product placement. Too bad Larraín didn’t have Anne Boleyn join Diana for a riverside lunch of fried chicken – it would have been the perfectly sublime send-off to an utterly ridiculous film.