Diana biopic Spencer is a moreish mix of scuttlebutt and psychodrama
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Spencer, you had me at “Where the fuck am I?” The line is muttered down a wintry country lane by the Diana of the title — played by Kristen Stewart in Pablo Larraín’s artful snapshot of a cold Christmas with the British royal family.
“A fable from a true story,” the film calls itself. Consider that licence for a moreish mix of scuttlebutt and psychodrama. The heroine soon stops her Porsche to seek directions in an egg-and-chips café. She is late. “Will they kill me?” she wonders out loud.
The sequence — beautifully done — is the conceit of screenwriter Steven Knight. Rarely does a writer of movies put a stamp on a film like Knight does here, slipping grandly loaded lines into the mouths of not always famously articulate characters. But what makes Spencer so addictive is that Larraín and Stewart are each at full-tilt too, a trio of huge creative personalities, occasionally colliding. There always were three of us in this marriage.
The princess gets to where she’s going — the Queen’s Sandringham estate. The Christmas is 1991, fairytale long over. Yet for now the facade remains, kitchen staff cracking open trunks of lobster like firearms cases. Much here has a military aspect, not least royal equerry Major Gregory (Timothy Spall, note-perfect). The family appear in due course, but he is ever present, a stiff-backed enforcer. (Motto: “Everyone joins in.”) In time, he and Diana will argue philosophies. For now, he insists she is weighed — a Windsor tradition, carried out on a set of giant brass scales. Just a bit of fun, he smiles.
Knight is having all the fun in the world. So too Larraín, setting loose his inner Kubrick. As Stewart roams the hallways, the wink to The Shining is clear even before the encounter in a green-tiled bathroom and Spall looming in tie and tails. The homage is well-judged. Like the Overlook Hotel, the film paints Sandringham — and by extension much more — as a place where “past and present are the same thing.”
Larraín is on top form. Amid the glowers and chintz, he strikes a rare tone — at once coolly minimalist and wildly operatic.
Still, it would be all be stuffed without Stewart. Her charisma is a given. An actor needs more than presence to do what she does here — asked to play broken doll, middlebrow fan of Les Mis and chic avenger. Her inner landscape teeters. (Her outer landscape has a key role too, her childhood home boarded up nearby — an analyst’s dream.) Few leads could pull it off but Stewart never fails on any part of the bargain, swallowing pearls at a nightmare festive dinner, sweetly sharing presents with her sons.
The performance isn’t the type where an actor disappears inside their character. Instead, Stewart lets her own hyper-modern star power stay on screen too — joining forces with her subject, each ready for their close-up.
In cinemas from November 5