Go see Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, which stars Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, and the next day you will wonder: did I go to the cinema last night or did I have a cheese dream? Did she really clear the room of staff by saying she wished to masturbate, or was it the cheddar and crackers I foolishly had before bed? This is a total cheese dream of a film —did she really just eat a pearl? — but also it’s a riveting one as well as a thrillingly entertaining one. Plus it all somehow feels true even if it isn’t. Broken woman, unfeeling family. That seems about right.
With a super-smart script by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke and, for television, Peaky Blinders), and directed by Larrain (Jackie), the film is set over three days at Sandringham in 1991 where the royal family have gathered to celebrate Christmas. It is billed as ‘a fable from a true tragedy’, whatever that might mean, and Diana’s marriage to Charles is irrevocably on the rocks but the family still imagine she can be brought to heel. She arrives late, having got lost in her little sports car. The Queen has already arrived and, if nothing else, you will get extraordinary pleasure just from seeing so many corgis tumble out of a Bentley. Diana receives a freezing reception, literally as well as metaphorically. The heating is never turned up here. You may have envied the royals’ lifestyle down the years, but remember this: a lot of their time is spent huddled under blankets.
The family want eyes on her at all times. Staff hover constantly, hence her need to sometimes clear the room. The Queen Mother’s equerry, Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), stalks her every move with a quiet menace that plays into the film’s Gothic horror vibe. Sandringham, with its endlessly long corridors, is like that hotel in The Shining, but colder. This Diana knows what the world thinks of her (‘beautiful but not very bright’) but does not know how to extricate herself from what she is plainly experiencing as a nightmare. She is haunted by Anne Boleyn, visits the spookily derelict house where she grew up, talks to her dead father’s coat, raids the larder at night and then it’s head over the toilet bowl. There are fantasy sequences. At one point she pulls from her neck the pearl necklace Charles had given her — he gave the same one to Camilla — the pearls fall into her soup, and she eats them, with great cracking sounds. Crazy, but we get it.
The other royals are mainly out of sight. Princess Anne and Fergie are just hair-dos. This family, we understand, are hidebound by tradition and the past, and are mostly glimpsed sitting ramrod straight at the dinner table, as if mummified. Charles (Jack Farthing) is given some space and he has no sympathy for his wife. He tells her at breakfast about the labour bees put into making honey so might she ‘do them the courtesy of not regurgitating it’. However, this film is so clever that you also understand why they loathed her, why she was so annoying, and sometimes you want to shake her yourself and say: ‘Just toe the line! They may even whack the thermostat up!’
Although there are moments of tenderness — she adores William and Harry who adore her back; she is comforted by one particular maid (Sally Hawkins) — this film plays like a crazed breakdown because it is about a crazed breakdown. And Stewart both carries the film and the day. She looks nothing like Diana but is somehow Diana. I think it’s called ‘great acting’. Her Diana is sad, fragile, volatile, lost, yearns for love, cannot find it, but she also has the strength not to play ball.