Kristen Stewart a perfect Princess Diana
When Queen Elizabeth II, in her 1991 Christmasmessage, made a reference ‘‘... to those who have recently broken free of dictatorship’’ she was referring to the people of the former Soviet Union. Earlier that year, democratic elections had been held in Russia for the first time in a generation.
But for the people of Chile, whose oppression under Pinochet had ended only a year before, it must have been a telling moment. The Queen’s Government in the UK had covertly supported Pinochet’s coup. UK Prime Minister Thatcher had even conducted a friendship with the murderous thug.
Director Pablo Larrain is Chilean. He was born a few years after Pinochet seized power. And of all the lines from the speech that he could have included in Spencer, that is the one he chose. In the entire rest of the film, the Queen gets exactly one line of dialogue.
It’s a clue to Larrain’s entire kaupapa here. Anyone hoping that Spencer might resemble an extended episode of The Crown is in for a shock.
This is royalty as seen by an outsider, who does not share their values and finds the fawning that greets them wherever they go to be grotesque and hilarious. Which could all apply to Diana here, just as readily as it applies to Larrain.
From the moment The Princess of Wales’ luggage rolls into view bearing tags that read ‘‘P.O.W’’, it is clear that Larrain is not interested in subtlety, or even ‘‘the facts’’.
Spencer is set across three days. On Christmas Eve, the family gather at Sandringham. In their German tradition, they open presents that night. On Christmas Day, the family will attend breakfast, church and then a lunch and dinner of stultifying formality. On Boxing Day, the menfolk will be expected to murder as many pheasants as they can, which will then mostly be thrown away.
‘‘They are bred for the gun,’’ a kindly chef tells Diana, for whom he is clearly concerned.
The only way to watch Spencer is as a spiked satire of an institution that badly needs an actual dissection – and not just the toothless and affectionate once-over it receives from the Netflix series.
‘‘All the world’s a stage,’’ says Shakespeare. And that is surely more true for royals than most. So Larrain takes us away from where the players are turned to the cameras – and into the kitchens and dressing rooms where the show is prepared. Here, he claims, Diana found some friendship and loyalty that she would never find in the crew she had married into. And that when she left Charles the following year, it was because Sandringham had shown her what she was missing.
Larrain is an astonishing filmmaker – and he lays out Steven Knight’s ( Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) mischievous script in economically assembled scenes. Cinematographer Claire Mathon ( Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is on fire herself here, while Jonny Greenwood’s score is a brilliant patchwork of jazz, neo-classical and discordance that underpins every scene with swagger and flare.
Larrain’s obsession with the power of costume is indulged early here – and often. Anyone who has seen Jackie knows the symbolic heights Larrain can elevate a frock to. In his earlier Tony Manero – a film you really should see – Larrain had one of his duelling John Travolta impersonators take an exuberant dump on a competitor’s glowing white jacket.
There is nothing so outre here, but a late shot of a scarecrow in a field wearing a Chanel suit is surely Larrain pinning his colours to the mast.
Kristen Stewart seems to me to be perfect as Diana. She is not a photocopy – although she nails the voice – but Stewart brings a fury and a poignancy to the role that maybe no other actor could have so accurately located. Awards are due. Timothy Spall, playing a fictional equerry, should get a nod too.
Spencer is an angry, funny and, finally, tragically optimistic film. It won’t please the fans of ‘‘the firm’’, but I reckon that’s fine.
At this juncture, they should be happy it is still possible to say something interesting about them at all. I’m only surprised Larrain didn’t give them scales and horns as well.