IIt makes sense that this brilliant film about the late Princess of Wales is called Spencer, not Diana, the name that still sells newspapers nearly 25 years after her death. A scintillating Kristen Stewart captures her coltish mannerisms and skittish charisma, but director Pablo Larraín has no interest in rehashing the tragic fairytale we’ve seen in countless TV docs. This is a portrait of a woman looking to her past – as the privileged but anonymous noblewoman Diana Spencer – to help her rediscover who she is outside of the royal machine.
After introducing itself as “a fable from a true tragedy”, Larraín’s film offers a shocking and sometimes surreal vision of three days in the Princess’s life. It’s Christmas 1991 and Diana (Stewart) is supposed to play along with the stiffly choreographed traditions of a royal Christmas despite the fact that her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is in tatters and her in-laws seem baffled by her profound unhappiness. Her only allies at Sandringham, the Queen’s grand and intimidating Norfolk estate, are two sympathetic servants: Head Chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris) and dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins). Larraín and screenwriter Steven Knight (the creator of Peaky Blinders) dare us to empathise with Diana as she behaves petulantly, unpredictably and self-destructively while displaying flashes of the incredible gift for human connection that made her an icon. They don’t bother with backstory, presuming that everyone will already know why Diana finds the prospect of eating, shooting and wearing expensive clothes that someone else has chosen for her so torturous.
Cleverly, Charles and the Queen (Stella Gonet) are used sparingly and remain peripheral figures for much of the film. This prevents Spencer from feeling like an avant-garde episode of The Crown, but also keeps the focus tightly on Diana’s psychological struggle, which Larraín illuminates with flashbacks and hallucinations. Knight’s script can’t resist the odd on-the-nose moment – at one point, Diana notes the similarity between Sandringham’s beautiful but not very bright pheasants and the way she was portrayed in a recent Vogue profile. More subtle is the way Timothy Spall’s calculating head servant comes to represent the empathy-free ruthlessness of the royal institution. An incredibly tender sequence between Diana and Hawkins’ Maggie feels both left field and, in its own way, authentic to who Diana was as a person. All scenes, whether soft-hearted or stress-inducing, benefit from a magnificent score by Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.
The film’s ending is both exhilarating and steeped in pathos because we know the grim fate that will befall Diana eventually. Spencer won’t please staunch royalists, but Larraín and Stewart have succeeded in presenting a fresh and perhaps enlightening impression of one of the 20th century’s most dissected figures. This Diana isn’t “England’s rose” or a “queen of hearts”, but a traumatised, cornered animal, desperately trying to claw her way out of a gilded cage.
- Director: Pablo Larraín
- Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins
- Release date: November 5 (in UK cinemas)