Then Playing — Spencer; No Man of Her Own; The Southerner

Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021). Chilean director Pablo Larraín brings the airy, arty approach of his 2016 film Jackie to another iconic female figure on the world stage. As in the earlier drama, Larraín keeps the focus on a few days, endeavoring to reveal the whole person through the strain of a fleeting test of will that is all too representative of the demands put on her by the supposed loved ones, as well as a ravenous media and public. As Princess Diana, Kristen Stewart doesn’t disappear into an actorly impression. Instead, she effectively captures the sense of constant sullen unsettlement felt by a woman whose personhood was constantly nipped at by a hidebound apparatus meant to maintain an outdated and curiously self-immolating monarchy. Solid as Stewart is, the overall chill of Larraín’s approach keeps the character she develops too much at a distance. The artifice of the acting is always felt, even blunting some of the story’s most poignant observations, such as the way the tiniest rebellions can feel intoxicating for those smothered by stringent propriety. Larraín sometimes imbues Spencer with a sense of welling horror, as if an Ari Aster film is about to break out. I kept itching for that approach to prevail, all in the hope that it would provide a rescue from stultifying soullessness.

No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles, 1932). The only film future married couple Clark Gable and Carole Lombard appeared together in, No Man of Her Own is a flinty flick about a caddish card sharp (Gable) who gradually warms to the idea of walking the straight and narrow after succumbing to the romantic charms of a librarian (Lombard) in a small town he briefly hides out in when one of his stacked-deck schemes goes sideways. Director Wesley Ruggles is less concerned with click-click-click plot continuity than the snappy charisma of his two leads. It’s a wholly understandable approach, leading to a film that engagingly zings along. There’s some grand Hollywood craft to the film, especially a patiently held wide shot of the library set that is all by itself a lovely souvenir of the impressive work of bygone movie artisans.

The Southerner (Jean Renoir, 1945). This screen adaptation of the 1941 novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand is a tense, beleaguered depiction of the near-impossibility for hard workers to actually improve their financial position if they don’t start with the bulwark of established wealth. Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) and his wife, Nona (Betty Field), step away from the grueling sharecropper life to make a go of it with their own farm. Their progress is constantly halted and undone by nasty whims of fate: the sabotage of neighbors, poor health, devastating weather battering the fields. Director Jean Renoir is resolute in his storytelling, working with cinematographer Lucien Andriot to craft scenes with rich shadows that evoke the troubles the Tuckers can’t quite escape. The Southerner could be interpreted as bleak, but I think firmly honest is a better descriptor.

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