A fairytale princess is trapped inside an ogre’s castle in Spencer, “A fable from a true tragedy” a note announces at the start of director Pablo Larraín’s film following Princess Diana over three Christmas-y days stuck with the Royal Family at Sandringham. But it’s also a story about a woman driven mad by the situation around her, gamely still fighting for independence, trying to assert that she’s also a somebody in her own right, a Spencer, not just a pretty bauble hanging off the tree of the British Royal Family.
The story takes place at Sandringham over Christmas where the Firm all assemble annually. It’s the tenth time Diana has done the three-day stretch and she knows all the rituals, which start, bizarrely, with being weighed in – “just a bit of fun”, she’s reminded – on the sort of scales jockeys use. Everyone is expected to be at least three pounds heavier on leaving, to prove they have had a good time. From what Larraín shows us of the stiff proceedings over the festivities, it’s the only visual proof there’s going to be.
The entire three days run like a military operation. At each meal or gathering a different outfit to be worn. Presents exchanged on Christmas Eve. The watching of the Queen’s speech on TV on Christmas Day. Shooting of pheasants on Boxing Day. In between times hanging around in the vast underheated house (“Why don’t they turn the heat up?”, Diana asks) reading old books from shelves that Queen Victoria would recognise.
Diana has middle class aspirations – she wants “nice things”, and likes fast food and pop music – and in some respects Spencer is a clash of two notions of being middle class: consumerist Di versus the make-do-and-mend rest of them. Here, there is no future, Diana tells her adored boys, only the past and the present. Tradition weighs heavy, and in the shape of shadowy ex-Army man Major Alistar Gregory it has an enforcer.
If the traditional view of Diana is that she was a bit of a weirdo (the bulimia etc), in Spencer it’s the Royals who are the oddballs, a stiff, barely human lot who don’t intrude much into the drama, apart from Prince Charles, who gets a couple of speeches about duty and one about how everyone in the Royal Family understands that they have to be two distinct people, the real one in here and the other one, to be photographed and consumed publicly, out there. A game Diana seems to be completely incapable of playing.
The notion of Diana as a dim bird – a gloriously plumed dead pheasant, notoriously stupid, is one of the film’s opening shots – is also tackled. This Diana may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she’s nice, self-aware and compassionate, and she’s fully aware of what people say about her.
Like Sandringham itself, this is a superbly well appointed affair, richly shot, beautifully accoutred, with performances by nailed-on-dead-cert actors of the calibre of Timothy Spall (as sour and always threatening Major Gregory) and Sally Hawkins (as Maggie, Diana’s dresser-cum-impromptu counsellor). They’re so richly drawn, these two characters, that it’s easy to imagine the film pivoting entirely so the whole three days were seen through their eyes.
Which brings us to Kristen Stewart as Diana, a bit of a pantomime performance at some level, the fluttering eyes, the tilted head, the little-girl-lost whispering, and Stewart’s androgynous beauty isn’t quite a fit for Diana’s. But Stewart gets tiny details, like the wanton swing of Diana’s hips, just right, and there are many spectacular moments as Stewart reaches beyond an impersonation to find, a phrase Diana would doubtless use, an emotional truth. Larraín apparently had her watch Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, another psychological portrait of a woman battling for control of her situation and going mad in the process. The result is pure Oscar-bait and Stewart must surely the frontrunner (writing this mid December 2020) for the Best Actress statuette.
Larraín seems to like films about women trapped by circumstance. This is his third (after Jackie and Ema) in five years. Personally, I preferred Jackie, about Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. As a character she was a portal through which we could view another world – the White House and its attendant circus. Steven Knight’s slightly aphoristic screenplay (there are slightly too many wisely Wildean pronouncements) also looks through a woman’s eyes but out there, where the Royal Family are, there isn’t that much, apart from the servants, to be seen.
Oh well. The movie is called Spencer, after all.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021