Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales

A fairytale princess is trapped inside an ogre’s castle in Spencer, “A fable from a true tragedy” a note announces at the start of director Pablo Larraín’s film following Princess Diana over three Christmas-y days stuck with the Royal Family at Sandringham. But it’s also a story about a woman driven mad by the situation around her, gamely still fighting for independence, trying to assert that she’s also a somebody in her own right, a Spencer, not just a pretty bauble hanging off the tree of the British Royal Family.

The story takes place at Sandringham over Christmas where the Firm all assemble annually. It’s the tenth time Diana has done the three-day stretch and she knows all the rituals, which start, bizarrely, with being weighed in – “just a bit of fun”, she’s reminded – on the sort of scales jockeys use. Everyone is expected to be at least three pounds heavier on leaving, to prove they have had a good time. From what Larraín shows us of the stiff proceedings over the festivities, it’s the only visual proof there’s going to be.

The entire three days run like a military operation. At each meal or gathering a different outfit to be worn. Presents exchanged on Christmas Eve. The watching of the Queen’s speech on TV on Christmas Day. Shooting of pheasants on Boxing Day. In between times hanging around in the vast underheated house (“Why don’t they turn the heat up?”, Diana asks) reading old books from shelves that Queen Victoria would recognise.

Diana has middle class aspirations – she wants “nice things”, and likes fast food and pop music – and in some respects Spencer is a clash of two notions of being middle class: consumerist Di versus the make-do-and-mend rest of them. Here, there is no future, Diana tells her adored boys, only the past and the present. Tradition weighs heavy, and in the shape of shadowy ex-Army man Major Alistar Gregory it has an enforcer.

If the traditional view of Diana is that she was a bit of a weirdo (the bulimia etc), in Spencer it’s the Royals who are the oddballs, a stiff, barely human lot who don’t intrude much into the drama, apart from Prince Charles, who gets a couple of speeches about duty and one about how everyone in the Royal Family understands that they have to be two distinct people, the real one in here and the other one, to be photographed and consumed publicly, out there. A game Diana seems to be completely incapable of playing.

Diana by a window
Trapped: Diana at Sandringham

The notion of Diana as a dim bird – a gloriously plumed dead pheasant, notoriously stupid, is one of the film’s opening shots – is also tackled. This Diana may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she’s nice, self-aware and compassionate, and she’s fully aware of what people say about her.

Like Sandringham itself, this is a superbly well appointed affair, richly shot, beautifully accoutred, with performances by nailed-on-dead-cert actors of the calibre of Timothy Spall (as sour and always threatening Major Gregory) and Sally Hawkins (as Maggie, Diana’s dresser-cum-impromptu counsellor). They’re so richly drawn, these two characters, that it’s easy to imagine the film pivoting entirely so the whole three days were seen through their eyes.

Which brings us to Kristen Stewart as Diana, a bit of a pantomime performance at some level, the fluttering eyes, the tilted head, the little-girl-lost whispering, and Stewart’s androgynous beauty isn’t quite a fit for Diana’s. But Stewart gets tiny details, like the wanton swing of Diana’s hips, just right, and there are many spectacular moments as Stewart reaches beyond an impersonation to find, a phrase Diana would doubtless use, an emotional truth. Larraín apparently had her watch Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, another psychological portrait of a woman battling for control of her situation and going mad in the process. The result is pure Oscar-bait and Stewart must surely the frontrunner (writing this mid December 2020) for the Best Actress statuette.

Larraín seems to like films about women trapped by circumstance. This is his third (after Jackie and Ema) in five years. Personally, I preferred Jackie, about Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. As a character she was a portal through which we could view another world – the White House and its attendant circus. Steven Knight’s slightly aphoristic screenplay (there are slightly too many wisely Wildean pronouncements) also looks through a woman’s eyes but out there, where the Royal Family are, there isn’t that much, apart from the servants, to be seen.

Oh well. The movie is called Spencer, after all.

Spencer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Mariana Di Girólamo

The first film I saw of Pablo Larraín’s was 2008’s Tony Manero, which was about a man whose passion in life was posing as John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, out of Saturday Night Fever.

Larraín’s interest in people pretending to be something they’re not continues in Ema, which also happens to be a film pretending to be something it’s not. Even without the late gotcha moment when both Ema and the film are upended, what we have here is a mix of character study, formal experiment and genre pastiche, served up in two separate visual flavours by DP Sergio Armstrong, his usual gauzy, alienated lighting style punctuated by moments of boiling vital colour. On every level, something is afoot.

Plots usually hold films together but Larraín isn’t interested in that, or doesn’t seem to be at first. He introduces us to Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo), a dancer in a reggaeton troupe run by choreographer Gastón (Gael Garcia Bernal), with whom she’s also having a relationship. Had a relationship. It’s falling apart, ever since Ema gave their adopted child back to social services after he set fire to the house.

Larraín spends a lot of time establishing the facts of the adopted Polo case, in scenes with a social worker, Ema’s friends and family but most of all between her and Gastón, lockshot to-and-fros in which each brutally accuses the other of some failure in parenting.

Ema and Gaston betwen arguments
Between arguments: Ema and Gaston

On this firm basis the rest of the film sits, not so much a narrative as a succession of snapshots of no-bullshit Ema careening through life – she is, in effect the New Wave existential hero, a loner, an iconoclast, a libertine and a litmus test for phoniness.

In scenes that are more like stabs, Ema dances, she fucks, she hangs with her friends, she sets fire to things, eventually fucking the fireman who’s come to extinguish a car she’s torched (with napalm, very impressive), she sues for divorce, she fucks the lawyer handling that, and in one heady montage making clear that we fully understand what Ema is about Larraín cuts together sexual encounters between Ema and five or six various partners (don’t well all lose count after about four?).

This is the story of the young woman as free agent. When a headteacher interviewing her for a dance-teacher job asks her what she teaches, Ema declares “Freedom!”

Without going too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that what you see is not necessarily what you get. This is a Larraín movie – remember El Club, in which all those kindly, animal-loving priests were in fact all disgraced one way or another, and a nun ran their lives with an iron hand? Here, Larraín delivers two highly consequential dramatic twists towards the end – one involving the abandoned Polo – and it’s as if one of those New Wave French films full of pregnant pauses had suddenly been ram-raided by a Brazilian soap opera.

While it’s fascinating to watch Ema, collar up, slouching along like Belmondo, emotional engagement isn’t uppermost in Larraín’s mind, and this film doesn’t deliver massively on that level. Though Girólamo brings Ema to life there’s only so far she can go. This is a character study that isn’t, featuring an existential hero who isn’t, delivered as a mood piece which turns out, in the end, to be all about the plot. Probably worth watching twice.

Ema – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Tony Manero

Alfredo Castro in Tony Manero


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 October



Former Chilean president Pinochet arrested, 1998

On this day in 1998, Augusto Pinochet, the former president of Chile, was arrested in London, having been indicted by a Spanish judge of crimes against the human rights of his countrymen. It was the first time that European judges had applied the principle of universal jurisdiction, which asserts that states or international organisations can lay claim to legal authority over somebody, regardless of where the crime took place. The most notable use of the principle to date was in the trial of Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, many of whom refused to recognise the court, arguing that they could not be tried for acts which weren’t criminal at the time they were committed, in the territory where they were committed. Pinochet claimed something slightly different: that he had immunity from prosecution for the deaths of thousands of people killed by his government, and the many thousands more who were tortured, because he was a former head of state, and that a Chilean general amnesty of 1978 had in any case removed the crimes from the slate. Furthermore, Pinochet’s counsel argued that the former president was unfit to stand trial; he was in London to have an operation on his back and was arrested at the clinic. After around 15 months of back and forth, Pinochet’s medical condition finally earned him repatriation to Chile. When he arrived at the airport, he stood up out of the wheelchair he was supposedly confined to. Over the next few years, the Chilean government gradually moved from a position of protecting the former president, and gradually stripped him of various immunities. In time, Pinochet was charged with political assassination, murder, kidnapping and torture, but died before he could be tried, in 2006. Allegations have also been made accusing him of fraud, tax evasion, the illegal trafficking of biological and chemical weapons, cocaine smuggling and arms dealing.



Tony Manero (2008, dir: Pablo Larrain)

A rebuff to those who still pine for the stable days of General Pinochet, Pablo Larrain’s angry but eloquent entertainment stars Alfredo Castro as Tony Manero, a Saturday Night Fever fan who has borrowed the name of John Travolta’s character in that movie but wears the disappointments of 52 years of life on his face. Tony is an opportunistic scumbucket who kills an old lady, riffles through the pockets of a bagsnatcher killed by the police, makes a disco glitterball by sticking bits of broken mirror on an old football. Glamorous he ain’t, unless you find the sight of a man practising his dancefloor moves in his grubby underwear alluring. If you fancy going for the allegory, Tony represents the ease with which people can fall for someone like Pinochet, how they can become enthralled by a bit of tawdry tat, as Tony is with flashing dancefloors and as various women are with this crimson-shirted John Travolta wannabe. A dour movie that’s the Latin cousin of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Tony Manero presents one glum scene, then follows it up with something worse, and on, down, down until its vision of emotional poverty, moral squalor and lives lived at second hand is complete. That said, it’s not without an awareness that there’s something pretty funny going on too – the scene in which Tony turns up for a John Travolta lookalike competition only to find it’s a Chuck Norris lookalike competition, for example. It’s Larrain’s best film to date, obviously not exactly a barrel of cackling monkeys, but by the end, as the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive cranks up yet again, the point has been made. Alive, yes, but at what cost?



Why Watch?


  • A film about disco that’s alive to its various political nuances
  • The best film, and best place to start, with the films of Pablo Larrain
  • Dark comedy jostles with real brutality
  • Alfredo Castro’s slow-reveal performance


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Tony Manero – at Amazon