Producers: Juan de Dios Larraín, Jonas Dornbach, Paul Webster, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade and Pablo Larraín Director: Pablo Larraín Screenplay: Steven Knight Cast: Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Jack Farthing, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel, Elizabeth Berrington, Lore Stefanek, Amy Manson, Laura Benson, Wendy Patterson, Emma Darwall-Smith, Olga Hellsing, Thomas Douglas, Mathias Wolkowski, Oriana Gordon, Ryan Wichert, John Keogh and Niklas Kohrt Distributor: Neon/Topic Studios
Princess Diana endured an unhappy marriage and met an untimely end, of course, but opinions are divided about whether she warrants the almost cultish devotion some still pay her memory. Whatever you feel about that, however, everyone can agree she does not deserve the ignominy of the atrocious Broadway musical about her—or the luridly hyperbolic explosion of supposed sympathy that Steven Knight and Pedro Larraín lavish on her shade in what they describe as “a fable from a true tragedy” (in other words, a made-up riff based on sleazy reportage about a coupling gone wrong).
One wonders whether Knight got the idea for the situation in which he sets his invention—a Christmas celebration by the current dysfunctional royal family—from James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter.” The difference is that Goldman’s play about the familial discord between Henry II and his estranged wife Queen Eleanor at a Christmas court in 1183 (and the 1968 film of it)—was fun; by contrast “Spencer” is an alternately depressing and outlandish exercise in hysterical psycho-melodramatics.
It’s set at Sandringham House, the royal residence in Norfolk, in the early nineties, when the Prince of Wales and Diana have separated but not yet divorced and the House of Windsor is assembling for their traditional holiday reunion. Diana (Kristen Stewart) has escaped her security detail and is driving herself there, but gets lost along the way; she stops at a diner to ask directions—her “Where am I?” to the shocked patrons echoes the “Who are you?” Robert Bolt had a character ask of the title figure in “Lawrence of Arabia”—but eventually finds her way to the estate, though not before making a stop in a field beside her old family home, the deserted Spencer house, where she lovingly retrieves from a scarecrow one of her father’s old coats. A contrast between her bucolic childhood and the sordid mess her life has become is thus quickly established.
The days that follow add another comparison to the mix: thumbing through a book left in her room, apparently by the vampire-like equerry Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) assigned to oversee the proceedings to protect the Windsor brand (the actor can even make “Happy Christmas” sound like a threat), Diana imagines herself as a modern Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s queens, whom he had beheaded. She sometimes sees and hears Anne’s ghost (Amy Manson), but occasionally takes the part herself; and the necklace her husband (Jack Farthing) gives her as a Christmas present seems to strangle her—she breaks it, sending the pearls flying, not once but twice in her imaginings, and in one case they fall into her soup at dinner and she devours them greedily as the queen (Stella Gonet), already peeved by her violation of protocol in arriving late, looks on contemptuously. There’s but a single scene with Charles’ inamorata Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emma Darwall-Smith)—one in which they glare at one another wordlessly in a church courtyard—but the prince’s affair hangs over the entire picture like a storm cloud about to deliver a torrent.
This is not Larraín’s first speculative post-mortem psychological portrait of an iconic woman in crisis: his 2016 “Jackie” won Natalie Portman plaudits as JFK’s widow in the aftermath of the assassination. (It’s reported that he’s planning a third as well, though no subject has yet been disclosed.) “Spencer” is likely to do the same for Stewart, who doesn’t really look like Diana but nails her voice and manner. It’s more than an impersonation, though: Stewart invests her performance with the haunted naïf attitude the script imposes on the jilted princess. She’s also persuasive in dealing with the bouts of distress Diana suffered at inappropriate times as a result of her bulimia, and—although this isn’t emphasized as much—her cutting herself, though it’s hard to take seriously a film that shows its subject drawing blood with a stab at one point but without the slightest indication of the resultant wound in the next. The overarching theme is that Diana is helplessly trapped between nostalgia for her pre-royal life and agony in her present circumstance, a plight played out histrionically in her frenzied bursts of pique and contrasting episodes of brooding melancholy. (The changes are mirrored in Jonny Greenwood’s score, which shifts from morose piano riffs to discordantly jazzy trumpet blasts.)
Of course the film also touches on the idea that Diana had the common touch, that she was the “people’s princess” who could connect with ordinary folk in a way that her haughty, hostile in-laws could not. But the only non-royal characters with whom she actually interacts at all comfortably are chief chef Darren McGrady (Sean Harris), who runs the kitchen with amusingly military precision, and her preferred royal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins); that opening sequence at the roadside diner is staged in a way that suggests she’s as baffled about how to deal with the customers as they are about how to react to her.
In fact, she comes across as being truly at ease only with her sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), but they’re portrayed as taking care of her as much, or more, than she does them. And certainly the finale, in which she spirits the boys out of Sandringham for an impromptu trip to the city, is notable especially for the recklessly fast way she drives away with them—a foreshadowing, presumably, of the fatal accident that took her life years later.
“Spencer” is an elegant-looking movie—Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design is impeccable, Jacqueline Durran’s costumes (an important consideration in any film about a fashion icon like Diana) lovely, and Claire Mathon’s cinematography lush and luxurious (and properly gloomy in the night scenes when Diana sneaks past security to revisit her boarded-up childhood home). And Sebastián Sepúlveda’s editing smoothly accommodates the sudden shifts in Diana’s mood.
But while Larraín might intend his film to have a broad message about how even the most ostensibly privileged women have to confront the forces of repression and control, the fact is that he’s dealing with the particular psychological stress suffered by an actual historical person, and he plays fast and loose with it, just as he did in “Jackie.” Perhaps his goal is to critique the sort of intrusive tabloid coverage that played a role in Diana’s sad life, but in the end his picture has a lot in common with it. By portraying Diana as essentially a helpless damsel in distress in a house haunted by ghosts (the lingering spirits of her own past, and the longer royal one represented by Anne Boleyn) and monsters (the Windsors), he’s callously turned her suffering into what’s basically a horror movie, one that comes across as sensationalistic and rather tawdry.
The only saving grace, besides Stewart’s impressive turn, is that at least it lacks the dreadful songs that plagued the recent travesty, “Diana—The Musical.”