Dir: Pablo Larraín; Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins.
Don’t expect real-life royal soap opera in Spencer, the new film about Princess Diana that premiered amid huge fanfare at the Venice Film Festival back in September. It is described in the opening credits as a “fable” taken from a “true tragedy”. The story follows three seismic days in the life of Diana (Kristen Stewart) over the Christmas holidays at Sandringham in 1991, when she comes close to a breakdown.
Chilean director Pablo Larraín has called this “a fairytale in reverse”. Working from a screenplay by Steven Knight (of Peaky Blinders fame), he portrays Diana as a martyr in Sloane Ranger clothing, a modern-day equivalent to the doomed Anne Boleyn. “There’s no hope for me, not with them,” Diana sighs mournfully as she realises how indifferent the royal household is to her plight and how close her marriage is to collapse.
The film is bound to infuriate traditionalists. Larraín and Knight have taken huge liberties with their subject matter. “Now leave me, I want to masturbate,” the princess peremptorily dismisses her dresser at one stage. That’s not a line you hear too often in dramas about the royal family. Diana’s eating disorder is dealt with in graphic fashion. She is shown both throwing up and self-harming.
Such moments may suggest Spencer is prurient and voyeuristic, with a tabloid mentality. In fact, it’s the opposite. Like Larraín’s earlier film Jackie, in which Natalie Portman starred as JFK’s grieving wife, this is a self-consciously poetic and elegiac affair.
“Where the f*** am I?” are the first words Diana utters in the film. Disregarding royal protocol, she is driving herself to Sandringham but has become hopelessly lost. Although she grew up at nearby Park House on the Sandringham Estate, she can’t find her way to her destination. As always, she is very late.
It takes a moment or two to get used to Stewart as Diana. Despite the make-up and meticulous costume design, the Hollywood star doesn’t instantly evoke the “people’s princess”. Nonetheless, she gives a memorable, very mercurial performance. She’s fidgety, charming, impulsive and often funny – an immediately ingratiating presence.
The scenes between Diana and the young princes William and Harry, who look nothing like their real-life equivalents, could easily have been trite and toe-curling. Instead, they are among the film’s most moving moments. She is shown as their accomplice in mischief. They are fiercely protective toward her, promising to tell her when her behaviour has become just too erratic.
The pathos comes from Diana’s awareness of her own frailties and her inability to protect herself. “No one is above tradition,” she is warned, as she keeps on putting spokes in the wheels of royal protocol.
The “other” woman in Diana’s overcrowded marriage isn’t even mentioned by name. She is glimpsed outside a church. Diana is furious and humiliated that Prince Charles’s Christmas present to her is exactly the same pearl necklace that he has already given to his mistress, but the filmmakers avoid getting bogged down in scandal and gossip.
Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is only encountered fleetingly and we don’t see much of the Queen or other members of the royal family either (although, reassuringly, we do get a glimpse of the corgis).
Several of the supporting characters are fictional. Timothy Spall plays the Queen Mother’s equerry, who has been seconded to Sandringham to stop Diana going off the rails. He’s an ex-soldier in the Black Watch regiment who watches over her like a dark sentinel. Other prominent characters include her favourite dresser (Sally Hawkins), the one person who truly seems to understand her struggle, and the royal chef (Sean Harris), stern but kind and always ready to cook her favourite pudding. However, the main focus here is on Diana herself and her inner world.
The film has dream sequences in which Anne Boleyn springs back to life, and interludes in which Diana looks and behaves like a tragic heroine in a Christmas ballet or a Jean Cocteau fairytale. In case we’re in any doubt that she is being victimised, the film compares her at different times both to an insect under the microscope having its wings pulled apart and to the beautiful but dim-witted pheasants Prince Charles and his friends like to shoot.
At times, the storytelling tone shifts in very disconcerting fashion. The sombre mood is somewhat undermined by the banality of the late scenes in which Diana listens to her favourite pop music or takes the kids to KFC for chicken and chips while enthusing about “Les Mis” and her love of being ordinary. Nonetheless, this is still a considerable upgrade on the ill-fated 2014 biopic in which Naomi Watts played Diana. Stewart’s febrile, sensitive performance and Larraín’s trademark lyricism give it an emotional kick that such predecessors lacked.
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