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3 November 2021

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer is a bone-headed reassessment of Princess Diana

The grand biopic opts for heavy-handed symbolism over any grounding in reality.

By David Sexton

And yet I loved Jackie so! Pablo Larraín’s 2016 film about Jackie Kennedy’s grief and her creation of the Camelot myth in the week after JFK’s assassination swept me away. “So original, enveloping and moving,” I reported. The intensity of Natalie Portman’s performance, the phantasmagoric approach, the great soundtrack by Mica Levi – I found it all quite overwhelming.

Directing Jackie, Larraín says, only made him “even more interested in discovering and revealing the intimate personalities of women who changed the face of the 20th century”. So here we have Spencer, a similarly compacted story about Princess Diana enduring a disastrous Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham, during which the Chilean director Larraín and his British scriptwriter Steven Knight (best known for Locke) imagine she took the brave decision to place her freedom and that of her children above the demands of king and country.

Kristen Stewart plays Diana with a vim that has won Oscar predictions already, physically contorted all round by the oppression she endures, not just hanging her head lopsidedly in the early Renaissance Madonna move favoured by Diana herself. The vigour of her performance is much enhanced by the way everybody else is played not just as a stuffed shirt but as a walking corpse. Or just a standing corpse, for the camera work repeatedly endorses Diana as the only live presence by moving eagerly with her but remaining balefully fixed otherwise. She moves, they are stuck, you see?

[see also: Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is impossibly accomplished – and a bit boring]

The symbolism throughout is so heavy-handed as almost to impress in the end, for sheer bone-headedness. At the start, Diana is lost. Literally. “Where the fuck am I?” she demands. Adventurously driving her Porsche to Norfolk rather than submitting to family regimentation, she’s not only dislocated, she’s out of time, too, always shamefully late. “Will they kill me, do you think?” she asks the sympathetic chef Darren.

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They surely will, for tradition rules. “Here there is only one tense – there is no future, the past and present are the same thing,” as she explains to her sons. “It’s all set, as if everything had happened already.” Personifying inhuman tradition at Sandringham is evil Major Gregory, the Queen Mother’s equerry, played by Timothy Spall as if determined to illustrate once and for all what is meant by the expression lantern-jawed – or is it sucking a lemon? – while showing how well he could have taken on both the barman and the butler in The Shining.

Spencer does indeed launch into the supernatural and even horror too (it might be “An American in Norfolk”). The bad butler leaves out a book about Anne Boleyn for Diana to read, as an object lesson in where she’s headed – and soon Diana is having sinister visions and crunching up her constraining pearl necklace at dinner. “Go! Run!” the ghost of Anne advises. In a fantasy sequence, Diana, remembering her happy childhood, does run around and dance about joyfully, to show what spontaneity she might still have, if ever she escaped.

Yet the theme of the pheasant remains ominous. At the very start, we note one squashed in the road, as so often they are in these regions. Diana identifies with these elegant birds (“beautiful but not very bright”) intensely. At one point, she converses with a fine cock. “Go on, fly away before it is too late,” she urges him. “May I recommend Kensington?” Later, she is distraught when her sons are roped into a shoot. She runs up, arms extended, proclaiming, in case we had missed the point, that she is going to take her place among them – the slaughtered, often just thrown away afterwards.

On the plus side, she is sustained by her personal dresser, Maggie (the interminably gamine Sally Hawkins), who urges: “Fight them! You are beautiful – you are your own weapon!” Subsequently, Maggie reveals that she’s in love with Diana – “Yes, in that way!” – and jokes about how often she’s seen her naked. “Fuck doctors, what you need is love.” And they romp girlishly on a beach, perhaps Holkham.

Diana loyalists might rejoice in her most complete vindication yet. But, for the sane, among the many ways in which Spencer seems peculiarly distant from humdrum British reality (Sandringham is represented by a vast Teutonic palace) is that Larraín appears to believe Diana’s travails were politically significant, epoch-defining even, like Jackie’s. Still, he will surely do better when he gives us his Meghan. Soon, I hope.

“Spencer” is in cinemas now

[see also: The plush overkill of Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho]

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained