MOVIE REVIEW – Director Pablo Larraín once subverted genre conventions with “Jackie”, and now in Spencer he explores the crisis of another iconic woman as the last illusions of her “fairytale” marriage crumble.
This is not a biopic. That’s something everyone who goes to see Spencer in cinemas (because that’s the only place it’s shown) should know, with Los Angeles-born Kristen Stewart giving the performance of her life as Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.
Ice-cold castle, doomed love, mental breakdown
Just don’t expect the full story of Diana. Spencer shows just 72 hours of the legendary and tragic Princess’s tumultuous life as she prepares to celebrate Christmas 1991 at Sandringham with the royal family and Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) – in a literally ice-cold castle (the British royal family doesn’t heat the place) – as they experience what is arguably one of the worst moments of their relationship, which is now completely over.
It’s not that simple. Being part of a cold royal family has driven Diana to a mental breakdown, exacerbated by her compulsive behaviour of cutting herself, bulimia and vomiting. Diana would gladly disappear (or even go) if it weren’t for the presence of her beloved sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry).
From Chilean director Pablo Larrain, whose film “Jackie” earned an Oscar nomination for Natalie Portman’s portrayal of JFK’s widow in the tumultuous period immediately following the assassination, this superb character drama becomes a cracked mirror of a woman’s soul.
Lost in the countryside
Working from a dreamlike script by Stephen Knight, Larrain imagines Diana lost from the start. Literally: when she drives down to the castle alone, she can barely find it. After defying tradition by driving himself (without security) to Queen Elizabeth’s (a stiffly cool Stella Gonet) country castle, she stops at a café to ask, “Where am I?” The onlookers stare at her, dumbfounded: they are so stunned by the sight of Princess Diana that they cannot answer this simple question.
When she arrives late – another form of rebellion – Diana is told to dress as ordered, but only after being weighed. It’s a Victorian ritual, with guests being weighed in and out to make sure the pounds have crept up after the non-stop, royal feasting.
Crazy? Wait, there’s more. Servants examine Diana’s pillow for hairs that might belong to a secret lover. Her bedroom curtains are sewn shut to prevent paparazzi. Royal disapproval weighs so heavily on Diana that she imagines herself as Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s beheaded second wife.
They keep her in order
As the in-house spies watch her every move to either curry favour with the crown or sell her out to the media, Diana finds warmth and playful companionship in her dresser Maggie, who in a small role, given size, scope and honest emotion by the incredible Sally Hawkins, abounds. Maggie is soon dismissed, however, leaving ex-soldier Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall, playing the role with an amazingly hit-at-the-stake facial expression) to keep Diana in check.
Of course, Kristen Stewart isn’t the first Diana, as we’ve seen her portray Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debick in The Crown, and Jenna de Waalig played her in the musical Diana: The Musical. Yet Stewart’s interpretation of Diana, presented over just three days, is like nothing else and is tellingly, thrillingly alive.