Spencer, review: Kristen Stewart is masterful as Diana in this thrillingly gutsy, seductive film
12A cert, 111 min. Dir: Pablo Larraín
Once upon a time – Christmas 1991, to be exact – a beautiful princess in a gilded prison realised the time had come to make her escape. Or at least, that’s the way the fairy tale unfurls in Spencer, a resplendently mad, sad and beautiful new biopic from Pablo Larraín, which imagines a make-or-break moment around 30 years ago when the Royal family tried for the last time to bring their most dangerously wayward member to heel.
The setting is Sandringham, where Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart) has come to join her in-laws for a three-day festive break. Public speculation about the state of her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is feverish, and there’s much talk among the household’s staff of photographers skulking in the undergrowth.
But if Diana feels under surveillance, it’s by the house itself, where private conversations tend to filter through the crannies, and secrets are assets to be traded for advantage. And the man who makes sure he sees and hears all is Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), the Queen Mother’s equerry, who has been specially drafted in to steer Diana back onto the path which duty and tradition require her to tread.
“You know at school you do tenses?” she explains to her boys, William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), in a rare private moment. “Well, here there only is one tense. There’s no future. Past and present are the same thing.”
As soon as Spencer premiered at Venice in September, the 31-year-old Stewart was tipped for an Oscar, and rightly so: it’s an extraordinary performance. She captures to perfection the kind of surface details most biopics would pride themselves on as ends in themselves, from Diana’s halting speech to her coquettish downward glances and head tilts.
But Stewart also understands that Diana’s public image was itself a front – and that a surface only becomes dramatically exciting when we get to watch it crack. Steven Knight’s thrillingly strategic screenplay grants her, and us, an early moment of unhampered performance: on the way to Sandringham, she pulls her Porsche into a roadside café to coyly ask for directions, and the commoners are duly enthralled. But soon after her arrival, the fracturing begins.
A book about Anne Boleyn is pointedly left on her bedside table, which gives rise to a series of ghostly encounters with this earlier tragic royal bride. To Diana, she becomes a literal kindred spirit – especially after Charles presents her on Christmas Eve with a close-fitting pearl necklace, which she wears as if it’s a dotted line marked “chop here”. Like Larraín’s 2016 Jacqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie, Spencer is both reconstruction and deconstruction, prying apart recent history to reveal the old myths ticking underneath.
The Royals, insular, moth-grey and hidebound, are cast in a grimly unflattering light: on Spencer’s opening day, you sense Meghan Markle might be first in the box-office queue. But this is an apocryphal, one-woman psychodrama, and the Royals themselves, up to and including Stella Gonet’s Queen Elizabeth II, are largely reduced to background artists. The real supporting players, each one brilliantly performed, are the help: Sally Hawkins’s tender, sympathetic personal dresser; Sean Harris’s flinty head chef, who recites his menus as if he’s performing Molière; and most of all, Spall’s sharp-eyed ex-Black Watch man, a living embodiment of the very institution he serves.
A maid, a cook, a faithful huntsman: if these people sound like stock figures from Grimm or Perrault, then rest assured Spencer is one step ahead of you. The film introduces itself as “a fable from a true tragedy”, and embraces its story’s fantastical resonances as eagerly as it does melodrama and camp. Even the various German castles that double for Sandringham on screen, stunningly captured by cinematographer Claire Mathon, are considerably more loomingly baroque than the real thing. (Most of the exteriors were shot at Schloss Nordkirchen, which in architectural terms sits somewhere between the Palace of Versailles and The Shining’s Overlook Hotel.)
Unlike The Crown, it seems there is little risk of viewers confusing all of the above with stringent documentary realism. But every moment in Spencer rings psychologically and folklorically true – even its loopier interludes, from a free-floating dance montage to a family singalong with Mike + the Mechanics, crackle with true and honestly achieved catharsis.
Perhaps Spencer is so compelling in part because it feels as if it could disintegrate at any given moment. Jonny Greenwood’s outstanding score actually does keep falling to bits, as austere, Albinoni-esque adagios crumble away into swirling free jazz. But Stewart, Larraín and their collaborators heroically stay the course. What magnificently gutsy, seductive, uninhibited filmmaking this is.
In cinemas from Friday November 5