It is the Christmas Season of 1991. On the 24th of December, the British Royal Family assemble at the Queen’s Sandringham estate. The only person not to have arrived on time is Diana Spencer (Kristen Stewart), now better known to the world as Princess Diana (although yes, technically she was not a princess, royalty fans, we know). Despite having been to Sandringham many times before, she has become lost and is driving around the countryside, in a sports-car, looking for her destination.
Diana is thirty-years old, is married to the Prince of Wales, is the mother of two young boys and is the most talked-about and photographed woman on the planet. She is always pursued by the paparazzi and her actions, fashion choices and public appearances fill column inches in newspapers and magazines. Now, the gossip is increasing about the stability of her marriage to Charles. The last thing Diana wants to do is spend three days with her in-laws, but she has very little choice in the matter.
This is the set-up for Pablo Larraín’s new feature film SPENCER. This movie is not a straight-forward biography of the late Diana Spencer. The story covers three days at a tumultuous time in her life. The presentation of this Christmas celebration is not a documentary drama, either. Diana and Charles’s marriage was shredding, they had been hitched for a decade and were a year away from the public declaration of a split. Director Larraín has chosen to take the audience into the interior world of Diana, showing us her imaginings and dreams as well as constructing fictionalised scenes of her interactions with the Royal staff, Charles’ family and their sons, William and Harry. The opening titles describe the film as “a fable based on a true story”. You have been warned.
Larraín and writer Stephen Knight have taken the position that their tale of Diana Spencer, who married a prince twelve-years her senior is about a young woman who began with a fairy tale idea of life and love and within a decade was broken-hearted and trapped in a luxurious prison. Only being mother to her boys gave her joy, but even this was affected by the royal family’s expectations of her sons.
Larraín is Chilean and doesn’t show great deference to the ideal of the British Royal family, but he is clearly on the side of the Princess. As ridiculous as it seems to us commoners to be cheering on this privileged woman, she was somewhat more like the rest of us, than her in-laws the Windsors. The sense of this is shown early on when she deals with Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), a retired military man who is the staff member at Sandringham tasked by the Queen herself with keeping Diana reined in and punctual. Diana bridles at this treatment, which includes the ritual of guests weighing themselves in on arrival, so they can prove they have gained “three pounds” of Christmas merriment by the end of the three-day event. The Princess is struggling with bulimia and does not want to reveal herself in this way.
Sandringham is filled with guests and what Diana wants most is to be left to her own devices. She sneaks off and spends time with her boys. She walks around the grounds when she is supposed to be involved in the itinerary of Yuletide events. One of these is the opening of the presents on Christmas Eve, another is a church visit on Christmas Day. Here, she sights Camilla Parker-Bowles and is incensed at the presence of the woman having an affair with her husband.
Diana doesn’t feel she has many allies at Sandringham. She has a confidant in Chef Darren (Sean Harris) and her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins). These characters are composites drawn from the many tell-all books that were written by staff after the death of Diana. The ceremony and ritual revealed will seem rather stifling to some. The royals do numerous things; eat, hunt and lounge around with the servants very close by, hovering with food, clothing, shotguns etc. This is a fantasy many of us have at some point, but for Diana all these people make her feel continually observed and hemmed in.
Motherhood is one of the subjects Larraín and Knight are examining. The Windsors are portrayed as rather cold, convention-bound and not particularly close-knit. The Spencers are shown in flashback to be a warmer tribe. One of the reasons Diana was referred to as the People’s Princess was that she made decisions about the raising and education of her sons to give them a less rarefied experience of life. She would take them to eat at MacDonald’s. When necessary, she would have them queue up in such places, just like “normal” people. As easy as it is to satirise this, she genuinely provided a very different childhood for William and Harry when compared with that of their father. Her many fans subscribed to a version of the fairy-tale of marrying a prince, but they loved her for breaking royal conventions and showing how much she could be like them.
Larraín and Kristen Stewart’s Diana is tortured, self-harming and lost. There are scenes when she is wandering through Sandringham late at night, where there are echoes of LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD (1961), as she passes disconsolately through sumptuous rooms, her mind filled with troubled thoughts and existential musings. This gathering of impressions and images is similar to the approach the director took in his last film JACKIE (2016) where Natalie Portman portrayed Jackie Kennedy. As in that film, we are taken into the mind of a woman who lives in close proximity to power and has the attention and fascination of the world through the media. JACKIE however deals with the truth and fiction of a tragedy. Jackie Kennedy has to bear the most personal loss, whilst simultaneously representing an entire, stunned nation. SPENCER simply cannot rise to these dramatic heights because the events of 1991 do not have the historical weight of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. The British Royal family are tremendously wealthy and have a ludicrous amount of influence, but their power is that of a constitutional monarchy. Or to put it another way, Diana had a dreadful time as a British Royal with which we can sympathise, but the British Royals are not particularly significant. This is a family drama, happening to celebrities.
Nonetheless, Kristen Stewart is rather good at being this Diana. Her performance is solid and is receiving the requisite Oscar buzz. An interesting side note, her English accent, which is quite different to her natural one, came through working with top dialogue coach William Conacher. He also worked with Emma Corrin who played Diana in Season 4 of THE CROWN and with Naomi Watts who played Diana in the 2013 biographical drama film DIANA.
Academy-award winning Jacqueline Durran is responsible for designing Diana’s costumes and was directed to create a wardrobe that purposely didn’t replicate any single ensemble. Larraín gave Durran 1988-1992 as the time span she could get visual references from. Like the story-telling, the wardrobe ends up impressionistic, although it did include vintage items such as a bomber jacket and recreations of apparel like a Chanel coat and a cardigan jacket that were recreated in collaboration with Chanel itself.
SPENCER is indeed a fable. And it is quite surreal in the sense that dream imagery and symbolism is much in evidence as it veers between art film and melodrama. Larraín has given us a series of polaroid snapshots of a bygone era. Stewart delivers strongly as the troubled dreamer at the centre of an emotional nightmare. This isn’t history, but you may find it interesting to see why this movie says Diana was actually a Spencer and never a Windsor.
Duration (1 hour and 57 minutes). Rating: (6.5/10)