Pablo Larrain’s Spencer achieves a great deal that the other major bio-pic, Diana, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and released in 2013, did not. That film told the unhappy princess’s story from the outside, examining her doomed romance with the Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. In this film, set a few years earlier, we are right inside Diana’s head, with all the anxiety, low self-esteem and paranoia that that entails.
Larraine has some form in this area, having made the excellent Jackie (2016), although it must be said that his follow-up, the fictional Ema, was unwatchably awful. But here, armed with Steven Knight’s screenplay which draws on real accounts from some of the household who were present, he gives us a surreal, sustainably over-the-top portrait of the princess’s mental state during a royal family Christmas at the inadequately-heated Sandringham Palace. The production design goes for broke, with a huge German palace standing in for Sandringham. Great credit must also go to Johnny Greenwood’s score which combines lyrical classical melodies with discordant jazz motifs.
Family Christmases can be demanding at the best of times. Here the experience is truly horrible. Diana arrives late, is late for meals, wears the wrong clothes. She lapses into self-harm and bulimia. Apart from two brief exchanges with Charles and the Queen, the whole royal family is seen as hidebound, gruesome spectres, almost hovering behind a veil of disapproval. Everything is cold, controlled and fiercely regimented, down to the dresses to be worn and the preparation of meals below stairs by the army catering corp. Diana’s fevered mind is occupied by two obsessions during the fateful three days of her visit. Firstly she seeks a reconnection with the ancient Spencer family, whose estate she grew up in just a few fields away, and whose noble lineage goes back more than two centuries. And secondly (courtesy of a book handily left in her room), she allies herself with the memory of Anne Boleyn, another queen thrown over by an unfeeling and irresponsible royal man in favour of another. Diana, likened to a pheasant (beautiful, but a bit dim), yearns to escape. She has meaningful exchanges with only three adult people: an ex-military factotum (excellently played by Timothy Spall) whose job it is to keep the paparazzi out and the princess in; the head of catering (Sean Harris); and one of her dressers (Sally Hawkins) who in a moment of real affection declares her love.
Diana only becomes properly alive in the company of her two boys, an aspect of her life woefully ignored in Hirschbiegel’s film. Kristen Stewart nails her performance with these scenes – a betrayed women yearning for love and with an ignored capacity to love. It takes a little while to recognize Stewart, physically, as Diana, but she inhabits the role wonderfully – the downward wistful gaze; the slightly awkward stance in the company of others. Her upper-crust English accent also does the job.
In a film which happily lampoons the very institution of monarchy, what could be better than the rebellious princess tearing her necklace away from her throat and dropping the offending pearls into her bowl of green soup, promptly crunching them between her teeth? That’s worth the price of admission alone.
Spencer is due to be released in the UK on 5th November 2021.
© Graham Buchan 2021.