‘THEY CAN HEAR YOU’, shouts a poster in the Sandringham kitchen, seen in the background of Pablo Larraín's new Princess Diana film Spencer. Everyone hears everything in this royal household. Nothing is secret, so it’s best just to follow the rules. A cold palace results, one that bitterly sticks an Orwellian regime into a building full of ghosts.
It’s Christmas 1991, the year before the Prince and Princess of Wales formally separated. For the 30-year-old Diana (Kristen Stewart), staying at Sandringham is a nightmarish scenario. She would rather drive aimlessly through the Norfolk countryside or chat with the chefs and maids. Spending dinner with her Royal family is a nauseating prospect and, for the most part, it's not meant to be optional.
The subtly dictatorial royal officer Major Gregory (Timothy Spall) hovers about the princess, making sure she conforms. He quietly enters, appearing behind Diana like an orderly spectre with a hint of Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers. ‘No one is above tradition,’ he pompously proclaims, mistaking her obstinacy for being spoiled. Her damp yet dominant husband Charles (a wavy-haired Jack Farthing) is of a similar mind. In reality, Diana’s a strangled wife with many impossible expectations to fulfil.
Stewart burns and magnetises as Diana. Her Californian background and Hollywood stardom melt under the princess's familiar, beautiful and calculated demeanour. After her success in Twilight, Stewart has straddled the indie and the mainstream – perhaps that’s why she can slip so vividly into Diana’s high heels and garish jackets. She can lift her face perfectly to a cinematic light in one scene, and engender many ambiguous tears for the next.
Larraín settles in a haunting, near-purgatorial atmosphere that echoes death and history. Leafless trees, sheets of frost on acres of land, a dead pheasant on the road with military vehicles carelessly passing the carcass. Cinematographer Claire Mathan (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) revels in these poetic images.
Inside Sandringham, Mathan's camera dollies uncomfortably across opulent rooms and a stalking Steadicam pursues Diana through long corridors – evoking the phantom glides in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. And like The Shining, Spencer is as much a haunted-house drama as a psychological thriller. Diana even speaks to Anne Boleyn, another royal wife ostracised for not doing as commanded.
Screenwriter Steven Knight, best known for Peaky Blinders (another example of repurposing actual history), crafts beautiful dialogue. In one scene, Diana describes her treatment in the tabloids: like an insect, gazed at from a microscope and professionally amputated. But often it’s the speechless moments that say the most. The stares that seem to pierce the princess, her rushing across open fields, her disappearing into a dark mist.
Nobody sensible can accuse Spencer of reflecting reality and, like the scrutiny The Crown received, any criticism of its fantasy would only reveal further foolishness. This is a ‘fable from a true tragedy’, as it is billed. Much of the film isn’t true, or clearly isn’t, which presents a stranger, more surreal, and more original vision.
Even within the context of the fabrications, it's hard to decipher reality from the concoctions of a nervous mind. That makes the film an absorbingly abstract speculation, an anti-biopic of sorts, that scrutinises these antiquated institutions that throttle individuality. Spencer is a royally fascinating triumph.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2021. Spencer will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 5 November.
05 Nov 21 – 05 Nov 22, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|