Film reviews: Spencer | Eternals | The Card Counter | Bull

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer reimagines Diana’s final Christmas as part of the royal family as an expressionistic horror film, writes Alistair Harkness

Kristen Stewart in Spencer (Picture: Neon)
Kristen Stewart in Spencer (Picture: Neon)

Spencer (12A) ****

Eternals (12A) **

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The Card Counter (15) ****

Bull (18) ****

Halloween may be over, but there’s an artfully ghoulish quality to Spencer, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín’s audacious new film about about Princess Diana’s final Christmas as part of the royal family. Starring Kristen Stewart in the lead, the film isn’t ghoulish in its treatment of its protagonist, but Larraín (who made the similarly inventive Jackie) and British screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke), do take a gleefully macabre approach to the monarchy. Riffing on the The Shining with ominous aerial shots of Sandringham, the film’s setting is presented as a gilded-cage version of the Overlook Hotel, one replete with a sinister Timothy Spall as an all-seeing equerry intent on correcting Diana, and Diana’s own fracturing psyche bringing forth the ghost of Anne Boleyn in a place where “the past and the present are the same thing" and the “future doesn’t exist.”

Opening with a military-style operation to get Sandringham ready for the holidays, the film subtly sets up the notion that Christmas with the in-laws is going to be a battleground for Diana, with her subsequent late arrival signifying the extent to which she’s already in a kind of monarchical no-man’s land, caught between her desire to desert and her determination to fight for her children. As such, what follows shouldn’t be viewed as a dramatically realistic portrait of the inner workings of the royal family, but an expressionistic horror film in which Diana’s overly scrutinised reality starts distorting around her, like the warped landscapes of an Edvard Munch painting. Her own torment reaches a fever-pitch of despair in a remarkable dinner scene that sees her making croutons out of a pearl necklace then vomiting up her soup in a bulimic bout of defiance. The Crown this ain’t. Through it all, Stewart is fearless as Diana. Complimented by the eerie madness of Jonny Greenwood’s disorientating score, her performance eschews reverential mimicry in favour of a more empathetic and interpretive exploration of Diana’s internal chaos.

There’s a point late on in Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland in which Frances McDormand’s van-dwelling Fern is trying to figure out whether or not to plough on with her itinerant lifestyle or reconnect with society at large. Walking along a deserted street late at night, she approaches a cinema showing The Avengers, pauses briefly to check out the poster, then moves on. Modern pop culture, it seems, has nothing to offer her. It’s a beautiful, subtle moment, typical of Zhao’s work. Ironically, it’s also now a depressing portent of how little the Marvel behemoth has to offer an Academy Award-winning director such a Zhao, whose new film Eternals has been conceived as one of the launchpads for the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but is more notable for how completely it subsumes Zhao’s hitherto distinctive filmmaking style.

Eternals

Based on a gibberish Jack Kirby comic about a race of interstellar superbeings who’ve been hiding out on Earth for the last 7,000 years protecting its citizens from a race of lupine supervillains known as Deviants, the film jumps back and forth across centuries to lay out a deeply uninteresting origins story involving a celestial god and another civilisation-threatening plan for global annihilation. Among the extensive cast, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Gemma Chan and Salma Hayek come across as charisma vacuums, with only Kumail Nanjiani and Barry Keoghan bringing any sense of fun to an overly earnest universe that’s short on zippy banter and big on shoddily rendered CGI set-pieces. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Zhao wanting to have a crack at something on this scale, but as Nomadland made clear, you don’t have to be partake in mainstream culture to count.

Following on from the biblical fury of 2017’s First Reformed, The Card Counter sees Paul Schrader enjoying a remarkable late-period renaissance with another hard-hitting exploration of purgatorial suffering. Oscar Isaac takes the lead as William Tell, an ex-con gambler who makes his living touring casinos and using his titular prison-honed skills to make a modest living quietly beating the house at its own game. When a not-quite-random encounter with Cirk (Tye Sheridan) – a college drop-out connected to his own bad apple past – provides him with a shot at redemption, he decides to enter the high-stakes world of big money poker tournaments to help Cirk out. It’s a move that risks upending William’s carefully controlled life, but it also brings him into the sphere of Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, a poker agent with whom he gradually falls in love. Here Schrader cleverly uses gambling as a bluff to lead us into a far wilder story, one that begins with an astonishing shot clueing us into the guilt-fuelled nightmare from which William is trying to escape, and continues with a subversive riff on the troubling avenging angel trope Schrader first explored in his script for Taxi Driver.

There’s a freakier take on the concept of the avenging angel in Bull, the intense new film from London to Brighton director Paul Andrew Williams. Starring Kill List’s Neil Maskell as a violent criminal out for vengeance against his equally nasty in-laws (led by a menacing David Haymen), the film starts out as a forcefully directed revenge thriller, but Williams takes it in a more original and disturbing direction with a bold final act wig-out.

All films on general release from 5 November

The Card Counter

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