Princess Diana joins the Royal family for Christmas at Sandringham.
I have had an uneasy if entirely one-sided relationship with Princess Diana for nearly 40 years now, ranging from bafflement to astonishment to sympathy. I’m not sure this film really changes things, so used to her reappraisal am I now.
In Pablo Larraín’s icily beautiful film, set during a royal Christmas at Sandringham in Norfolk, Diana asks her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) how she will be referred to in a thousand years. She’s already had a chat with a ghostly Anne Boleyn, but whereas the pendulum marking the beheaded queen’s reputational changes — from witch to victim and back to somewhere in the middle — has moved slowly over 500 years, it feels like we’ve already been there and done that several times with Diana.
Spencer is a real mixed bag: sometimes irritating, sometimes compelling, sometimes both at the same time (though considering its subject matter maybe that is inevitable). It incisively cuts through this historical battle to show it for what it was, a massive disconnect between what each “side” thinks the other is actually doing, and why.
Every royal tradition, many of them deliberately pointless, is to shore up the Crown rather than whoever who wears it, the actual person being of no consequence. It’s something Diana struggles with, this lack of concern for an individual which she sees as targeted attacks when the whole point is it’s not even about her.
The Royal family have maintained their iron grip on Britain through traditions that literally require military precision. The ingredients for the meals overseen by head chef Darren (Sean Harris) in the stunning whitewashed kitchens are brought in by soldiers. Meanwhile Darren quotes Shakespeare, and when he’s not quoting Shakespeare he sounds like he’s quoting Shakespeare.
Spencer‘s is not a new position but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so clear cut, the absence of malice directed at her in actions that are nonetheless designed to destroy her. Despite the frosty demeanour of Spencer‘s equerries, servants and Royals, and my current Team Diana status, this feels like an accidental war of attrition.
Like Larraín’s 2018 movie Jackie, Spencer goes heavy on the symbolism. Jackie Kennedy married into the nearest thing the US has to a royal family, and both films look at the two personas, the public face of an institution and the real person behind it (and from that how they might be remembered). In Spencer Prince Charles tells Diana the public don’t want the Royals to be people, when actually it’s the opposite, and we are obsessed with what they’re really like and what goes on behind those huge doors. (Despite the similarities, and my frequent irritation with Spencer, this film canters along like a filly from the royal stable whereas Jackie crawled indolently on at a snail’s pace.)
Spencer‘s focus is entirely Diana, with everyone, even her sons and husband, reduced to bit players. Most of the other members of the royal family don’t even speak.
Her primary relationship, apart from with her sons, is with her dresser Maggie, who is still more talked about than to. Even there the friendship is lopsided, and not just because one is a Royal and one a servant. It’s another mismatch, however close they are, in Diana’s world that is full of people coming from different directions with different motivations.
Kristen Stewart is a perfect Diana Spencer, captivating, self-aware, scared and also deeply annoying. Like Anne Boleyn, her Diana is a seemingly fragile but enduring ghost out of time. Her skin is dewy perfection, her hair longer, paler and prettier than the bright highlights the real Diana often sported in the 1990s when this is set. Her clothes, a sticking point throughout the festivities as she keeps wearing them out of sequence (heaven forbid one wears the “Christmas breakfast dress” to Christmas Eve afternoon tea) are blocks of eye-catching (and camera-catching) colour, or shooting stars of tulle and sparkle. They say everything about her, in a world where the Royals dress seemingly to blend into the dull, flat, green and brown Norfolk countryside around them, and into each other (William, dressed by his father for his first shoot, is a perfect Prince Charles mini-me).
Stewart’s mannerisms are pure Diana but larger, fitting for a woman who was everywhere yet most of us only knew from smiles, one-shouldered shrugs, and head tilts. The low, impossibly fast voice, a staccato of urgent desperation, grates after a while even as it says something about her urgency and fear of being overheard (even a notice in the huge kitchens reminds the staff that those above stairs hear everything). Much of the dialogue is on the nose, in contrast to the setting which is muted and old (Sandringham inside, all intricate fabrics and cream, gold, pale blue and golden brown, reminded me of an old, elaborate wedding cake).
Despite Stewart’s magnetism, I didn’t get many of the complexities of Diana’s character (the screenplay is by Steven Knight); it’s more about the forces crushing her, a millennium of overlaid traditions both minor and major, from shooting to endless outfit changes, festive weigh-ins to freezing houses, all in the service of The Crown.
The horrors are real and psychological. A dresser sews Diana’s heavy bedroom curtains shut, a measure ostensibly to protect her from her stalkers just locking her in with different ones. Police follow her when she tries to escape to her derelict childhood home across the fields, a dangerously decrepit, ghost-filled mansion that turns out to be the place she still feels safest. At a festive dinner she chokes on giant pearls in her soup.
Her descent sees past and present merge but emerging from that is a new, unconstrained Diana — even if her final task to ensure her escape is pure melodrama, with which Charles refuses to engage and which merely exasperates the Queen.
The score by Jonny Greenwood is brazen as it builds up the disconnect between Diana and the Crown. Intrusive and sometimes — yes! — irritating, it’s also doing what it’s meant to do. Unpredictable jazz stops any hints of smoothness as the fabric of Christmas at Sandringham is rent asunder. For Diana anyway; her lateness at family meals and refusal to wear the right outfit are irritants but nothing more for an institution that has sailed sluggishly but determinedly on throughout.
If you’ve missed anything, check out my article She was always a Spencer! (which is very spoilery including the ending).
Spencer is out in cinemas in the UK and US on 5 November 2021.
Watch the Spencer trailer now: