If nothing else, Spencer reveals that the world is still obsessed with the story of Lady Diana. I was of the assumption that our appetites for ‘The People’s Princess’ would have been satisfied by the fourth series of The Crown, but apparently not.
No, the world is clearly still fascinated with the inner life of the Royals; an interest that was recently peaked by Harry and Meghan’s decision to abdicate. In offering meagre insights into the foundations of such decisions, Spencer does very well indeed. But elsewhere, Pablo Larrain’s film has all the grace of John McEnroe throwing a wobbly at Wimbledon. Indeed, huge swatches of Spencer feel like a long game of tennis, where the players spend hours engaged in a graceful exchange of volleys only to lose their cool in incongruous displays of aggression right at the last moment.
Spencer focuses on three days in the life of Lady Diana during the Royal’s Christmas residency at Sandringham. After she arrives at the palace in an open-topped sports car, it becomes clear that the only people who haven’t gone cold on Diana are her sons and some of the more sympathetic house staff, including her poetry-spouting cook and confidant, Darren (played by Sean Harris) and her much-beloved dresser, Maggie (Sally Hawkins). Everyone else, however, including cheating Charles (Jack Farthing) and the imperturbable Major Gregory – played wonderfully by Timothy Spall – do everything they can to make her life a suffocating nightmare.
It should be said that Kristen Stewart, after a shaky start, does a fantastic job. She expertly embodies Lady Diana as she tries her best to adjust to the realisation that she is little more than “currency” in the eyes of the people, and that her role from now on is to smile, wear elegant dresses, and pretend that she feels nothing at all. In this sense, Spencer offers a fascinating criticism of the way in which female royalty have historically been either demonised or, if not that, idealised for the sake of public consumption – a theme compounded by the eerie presence of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), whose spectral interjections colour Spencer with a fantastically gothic palette. Certainly, Jonny Greenwood’s simmering baroque score helps in this regard – as does the artful sound design – which leaves the soft shimmer of chandelier glass twinkling in the background during some of the film’s tensest moments.
Unfortunately, Spencer suffers from a serious case of bathos. While Stewart’s performance is on the whole fairly subtle, she has a habit of fluctuating between subtle embodiment and outright parody with little warning. Subsequently, what was intended to be poignant ends up being just a little toe-curling. Time and time again Spencer builds itself up only to hit another miniaturised anti-climax.
But perhaps the most perplexing thing of all is that, despite criticising the media’s portrayal of Lady Diana and those women who followed in her footsteps, Larrain’s film also seems to embrace many of the most cliched depictions of women on the edge. Larrain’s Diana is a hysterical basket case, obsessively fixated on her husband’s affair and her own looks to the extent that Spencer feels almost as archaic as Henry James’ novella The Turn of The Screw, in which a mentally unstable governess becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted by the ghosts of its former residents. Larrain, like James, seems unable to portray female mental illness without making it look like some form of hysteria; something that could well be a stylistic choice, but which also strips away yet another layer of reality from one of the most continually-mythologised women of modern times. But, as Larrain reiterates time and time again, the public doesn’t want to see its Royalty as people.
Still, there are lots of reasons to go and see Spencer. Pablo Larrain’s control over the bottled tension housed within the walls of Sandringham makes it an undeniably enjoyable watch. I just wish I’d been shown something new.
Spencer opens in cinemas on November 5th.