In 2013, the famous German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel (director of Fall) turned the stormy life of the Princess of Wales into a farce with Diane, a shabby soap opera featuring a bowed-head, long-haired Naomi Watts reciting platitudes from the pages of Hi! magazine. In contrast, the thematic play by Chilean director Pablo Larraín to his 2016 hit Jackie offers a daring and somewhat mysterious portrayal of a woman in search of her own identity, evoking “a fable of true tragedy” which, despite all its dramatic invention, feels remarkably truthful. Playing over three excruciating days at Sandringham – from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day – and carried shoulder-to-shoulder by perfect note Kristen Stewart, Spencer (whose very title seems to present a challenge to the House of Windsor) dances between ethereal ghost story, archi social satire and unrestrained psychodrama, while remaining basically a hymn to motherhood.
“Keep the noise to a minimum: they can hear you,” reads an ominous sign in the kitchens of Sandringham, to which copious amounts of food are delivered in the film’s opening salvo. The fact that this food is delivered as military supplies only underscores his armed presence for Diana. From scales on which party guests are weighed in and out of Sandringham (a bit of traditional “fun”) to nightmarish feasts where cinematographer Claire Mathon keenly captures the claustrophobia of royal gazes, Spencer traps her bulimic subject in a network of royal rituals that strip her of her agency and identity.
Every movement of Diana is watched – by the press, whose lenses are more like microscopes; by the dressers, which sew Diane’s curtains as if to preserve a vampiric heritage; and by Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), similar to Lurch, the Queen Mother’s squire who was once in the Black Watch and now watching so “others can’t see”. Meanwhile, Diana’s dresses are labeled “POW” – Princess of Wales or POW?
“The past and the present are the same,” Diana tells her beloved young sons of this coldly traditional world, in which a secret candlelight hug provides a rare moment of warmth, adding (with a hint of anarchy to the Sex Pistols) that in this house there is “no future”. Little surprise that Diana longs to return “home” to Park House, a childhood idyll now sealed behind barbed wire, strangely shrouded in moonlight and haze like Wuthering Heights. Despite being ordered to stay away, Diana breaks ties to revisit old haunts in a scene reminiscent of Alejandro Amenábar’s mother-themed ghost story. Others. There’s also a hint of Daphne du Maurier, as pearls fall from Diana’s neck down a staircase, reminiscent of Gothic-style screen adaptations by My cousin Rachel.
Sometimes Steven Knight’s script spills over its imagery, most notably in a recurring motif of pheasants being “beautiful but not very bright” birds bred for shooting or a subplot about Bertie the Scarecrow wearing the “Daddy’s” coat. Diana. There are also visions of Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded so that her royal husband could replace her with another woman; in the midst of the madness of royal life, her presence seems oddly unintrusive. More touching is an ecstatic montage in which Stewart dances through the chapters of Diana’s life, ballet and bops crash into a running gallop as the smell of freedom arises.
At the base of all this, a magnificent score by Jonny Greenwood brilliantly accompanies and amplifies the drama. From the singing motifs of the main theme, with its melancholy major-minor modulations, to the sounds of a baroque string quartet crumbling in discordant terror, or the nervous and free jazz of Diana’s inner turmoil, the changes of ambiance are remarkable, throwing a touch of Krzysztof modernism by Penderecki in the cheeky echoes of the Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni.
In the supporting roles, Sean Harris is superb as kitchen mainstay Darren, who aspires to make his princess something in fact. wants and which addresses its staff as a “brigade” heading “once more towards the breach”. Kudos also to Sally Hawkins for adding a much needed love note as Diana’s favorite dresser, Maggie, breathing vibrant life into a role that in other hands might have fallen flat, but to which Hawkins is giving wings to fly.