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- Reviewed from the 2021 Venice film festival.
It was once an easy criticism to throw at the Royal Family that they were essentially a soap opera, gifted glamour on account of the settled dust of centuries, but these days it feels like they literally are a soap opera. It’s not so much a criticism as a statement of fact. If it isn’t Meghan and Harry promoting their own documentary series, then it’s The Crown, now filming its fifth season. The question then might be: is there really need for another dramatization featuring the Royals? Will Windsor fatigue set in? Or does Pablo Larraín have something new to offer in his film Spencer?
The answer to the last is yes, in parts. The Chilean director brings an outsider’s eye to a peculiar institution while Kristen Stewart gives a portrait of a woman coming to pieces that is intimate and at times touching. For Larraín, it’s easy to see the appeal of Diana. Throughout his career, he has been drawn to complex female figures, whether it’s the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy in Jackie (2016) or a reggaeton dancer in Ema (2019). The former especially is going to draw comparisons with this latest film, given that it shares structural similarities and a fascination with celebrity. The latter dimension also chimes well with the casting of Stewart, whose own relationship to her intense fame has frequently been ambivalent, to say the least.
Told over three days in 1991, the film opens with Diana (Stewart) lost on the country roads, trying to arrive at Sandringham House where the Royal Family have gathered to celebrate Christmas. It is an inauspicious start to her visit, as arriving after the Queen is not simply rude but an important breach of protocol. It won’t be the last time. She is greeted by a new face, an equerry played by Timothy Spall, an ex-soldier who has been called in partly to keep an eye on the troubled Princess.
Fortunately, there are some friendly faces as well. Her dresser (Sally Hawkins) offers sympathetic counsel, as does a chef (Sean Harris), and her sons Harry and William (Freddie Spry and Jack Nielen) are obvious sources of unconditional love as well as allies in still not being convinced of the absurdities that are handed on as tradition. But ranged against her is the coldness of husband Charles (Jack Farthing), the blank indifference of the other Royals and the possible subterfuge and spying of the staff.
Physically, Kristen Stewart more resembles Naomi Watts playing Princess Diana than Diana herself. Fortunately, the film is vastly superior to the so-bad-it’s-just-bad Diana (2013) and her performance is central to that. Her breathy English accent sometimes veers towards impersonation, but Stewart captures Diana’s fragility and her yearning to escape the strictures of the family she’s found herself in.
Screenwriter Stephen Knight has kept the focus riveted on Diana. With the exception of Charles and (briefly) the Queen, the rest of the Royal Family are either off stage or silent figures. Larraín stays with Diana’s subjective point of view. Time is cut and sudden ellipses – frequently skipping meal times – give us a sense of Diana’s own increasingly fractured perception. The film explicitly shows the Princess as suffering from mental health issues. The eating disorders are portrayed in a way that will make you look in a different way at the much-praised poster of the film. Self-harm and hallucinations also figure, the latter including repeated visions of Anne Boleyn as a bit too on-the-nose ghost. It is also unclear to what extent Diana is genuinely being targeted or whether it is paranoia on her part. Right from the off she is understandably flustered when asked to weigh herself as part of a tradition dating back to Prince Albert. But whether this is a deliberate humiliation or just a grossly insensitive insistence on tradition is never made fully clear.
Diana, however, isn’t simply a victim. She also has a mischievous glint to her, dismissing one servant by telling her she wants to masturbate. In fact she’s at her best with her sons, as when they all play a game on Christmas night – more a big sister in cahoots after lights out than a mum.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon captures the watercolors of a British winter: pallid sunlight and frosty fields and the lush interiors which, despite their beauty, manage to also look as cold as Diana and the boys repeatedly complain. Jonny Greenwood provides a string chamber music score that riffs on Schubert even as it tilts frantically, following Diana’s loosening grip on reality.
Not everything works. The upstairs-downstairs mechanics are overly familiar – food prepared with military precision, dogs being walked – as much from Downton Abbey as The Crown. The anticipation of Tony Blair’s rebranding of Diana as the People’s Princess, with the help declaring her affection for Diana, smacks of sycophancy. But at its most successful the film is a compelling picture of a troubled young woman in a hostile environment at the heart of the British state.
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