M, 116 minutes, cinema release from January 20
It’s been suggested before that a country stay with the royals is no day at the beach. In The Crown, Peter Morgan had Margaret Thatcher moaning with boredom throughout a Balmoral weekend of hunting, hiking and inhaling gusty draughts of cold air.
But these irritations can’t compare with the sufferings endured by Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) during a Sandringham Christmas in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer. Her marriage is coming apart and she’s consumed with sorrow and jealousy over her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, yet convention dictates that she put on a jolly good show.
Kristen Stewart at Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer.Credit:Pablo Larrain
“Thou shalt have fun” is the house’s governing commandment and it’s enforced with military precision. In the film’s opening scenes, a train of army vehicles comes rolling through the mist carrying the holiday provisions in locked metal trunks. Once these are in the kitchen, the head chef and his team unload the goodies, poised to conjure up the culinary flow essential to a Windsor Christmas.
Like jockeys before a race, every guest is subjected to a weighing-in ceremony. But the aim is to gain pounds rather than lose them, providing proof that fun has indeed been had.
The film can be seen as a companion piece to Jackie (2016), Larrain’s study of Jacqueline Kennedy’s anguished state of mind in the days following JFK’s assassination. Once again, he’s seeking to get inside the head of a famous woman undergoing a crisis. To that end, he’s calling Spencer a “fable” based on a “true tragedy”, which means that the imagination has been given full rein in upstaging known fact.
Chief of the fun police is a gaunt-looking Timothy Spall as Major Alastair Gregory, who quickly becomes Diana’s bete noire. Typical of his style is the biography of Anne Boleyn that he leaves in Diana’s room. It’s hardly the most tactful choice as a book before bedtime, and has Diana believing she’s become acquainted with Anne’s ghost.
Paradoxically, her royal in-laws don’t seem to be having much fun at all. They’re like puppets in a horror show, silently gathering around the groaning dinner table while Diana struggles to finish the soup. Except for young William and Harry, few of the royals have speaking parts. As an implacably smug Queen Elizabeth, Stella Gonet takes the trouble to dispense a few cynical words of advice to Diana, while a languidly supercilious Charles (Jack Farthing) gives her a cool lecture on the Janus-faced nature of being a royal. Like the separation of church and state, the distinction between the private and public self must be observed at all times. With that in mind, he can have an affair because he’s discreet; she can’t because discretion is beyond her.
Apart from her sons, Diana’s only confidantes are to be found among the palace staff. The head chef (Sean Harris) keeps a kindly eye on her, vainly hoping that she can calm her stomach long enough to enjoy his apricot souffle. Her dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), adores her and tries to persuade Diana of the self-confidence to be derived from her beauty. But as the weekend drags on, she’s drawn more deeply into memory, fantasy and the desire to do herself harm.
Stewart and Jack Farthing, who plays Prince Charles, in a scene from Spencer.Credit:Frederic Batier
Larrain’s intensely introspective approach worked to great effect in Jackie, perhaps because its script maintained a strong connection to reality. Here, he embraces caricature with such hearty enthusiasm that Stewart’s performance is tainted by the absurdities going on around her.
In a breathless, headlong way, Stewart does a credible job, but she’s perched on the edge of hysteria throughout and the upbeat ending fails to alter the impression that she and Larrain have delivered a one-dimensional portrait of a victim. Missing is any plausible pointer to the princess who would become such a brilliant manipulator of her media image.
You can see what Larrain is doing. The royals have been made monstrous by Diana’s imaginings, but if you’ve seen enough of Peter Morgan’s work about the royals (The Queen, The Audience, The Crown), the wordless marionettes around the dinner table seem not so much monstrous as ridiculous. And because of that, I found it too much of a stretch to take Diana or her torments with any seriousness.
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